Photo by Tenaya HillsWhen I was young, San Clemente meant salvation: the halfway point home after my family's daylong trips to the back-alley doctors of Tijuana. Nowadays, San Clemente is my definition of beauty's transience, and it's all because of White Horses.
At the bottom of Avenida Victoria, below a bed-and-breakfast and a short jaunt from the ocean stands this stunning, cozy bistro, named for what the British call foam-crested waves—and notthe monotonous club hit. Every six weeks or so, owners Mark and Aileen Norris redesign everything. Artwork comes down, replaced by the work of another local painter. The house bread is chucked to the birds. The music is silenced. Then the Norrises rewrite their dinner menu. The Moroccan-style lamb paired with a mango couscous that wowed so many during June? That's gone. Forever. So is that month's wonderful mint-ice-cream-topped bread pudding. And the lobster-gorged pasta shells, too.
It's a risky proposition to introduce a magnificent plate and then just as quickly yank it away. But the Norrises understand that truly great dining is about the ephemeral: great chefs capture singular sensations for one evening. They not only don't try to replicate that unprecedented moment, they don't want to. Like the tide, no dinner can ever be the same. There's only one constant at White Horses, and that's that the Norrises are consistently spectacular in their epicurean experiments, as dependably memorable and adventurous as riding Trestles.
The charm begins with Aileen herself, a peppy woman whose quick wit and warm voice are reminiscent of a dignified Sharon Osborne. She greets diners at the foyer, pulls out their chairs and explains the menu. Mark occasionally leaves his kitchen to chat up clients but quickly returns to his pots and sautés.
The Norrises are from England, which explains the menu's British tendencies. Visit during breakfast, and gorge on a properly greasy fry-up. It's like Norm's on a plate: fried bread, bangers, bacon, grilled mushrooms, sweet baked beans, eggs and toast. Many dishes come with chutneys, the Indian condiment that can range from a sweet, gritty coconut to a furious, bitter onion. During June, Mark did a fabulous take on tandoori shrimp; this month, he delicately fries samosas as appetizers.
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Mark has a fetish for lamb and veal—the July veal medallions, in particular, crusted with macadamia nuts, are so tender they nearly fuse with the candied brandy sauce. But for the dog days of summer, the White Horses menu skews toward the sea. The fruits de mer is an edible aquarium: chunks of lobster, crab, oysters, mussels, shrimp and even a puckering ceviche prepared on a platter for two and including dipping sauces that range from the mustardy to the sugary. There's also a red snapper that's a take on the famous Mexican Caribbean dish huachinango a la veracruzana, except it's sautéed with fruits—I'm tasting pineapple, mango, maybe even sugar cane. Mark pan fries trout; paints a luscious, dusky goose breast with an apricot and chipotle chutney (again with the Indo-Brit!); and caramelizes scallops wrapped in bacon. Even the tender chicken breast comes stuffed with crab and a tingly shrimp and champagne sauce.
There are some constants to White Horses' churning menu. Almost all meals come with a trio of mashed potatoes: sweet orange, garlicked white and gritty purple—a starchy, layered tricolor of heartiness. The recently introduced breakfast and lunch options won't vary—not a bad thing, considering you can feast on everything from the aforementioned fry-up to a dignified Texas steak sandwich to a whimsical duck pizza salad. For dinner, the only holdover is a goodie: a wheel of goat, sheep and cow cheeses from Spain presented with meat slices and a hunk of quince preserve, the fleshy, deep-purple fruit nowadays appreciated only by Mexicans, Argentines and Brits.
With its ever-rotating menu, White Horses guarantees at least monthly visits from diners. But even if you're the boring type, if you insist on routine, the Norrises challenge you with what's called the "grill" menu: six types of meats that can be grilled, baked or sautéed, marinated with your choice of four juices or crusted five different ways, then served with your pick from five butters or six types of sauces. The possibilities here are of the St. Ives kind—Riviera's food critic estimated the total at somewhere over 1,500. Sure, you'll never come close to trying even a tenth of that number, but you'll try as many as you can. And if you settle on just one? You are a dull, wretched soul indeed.
WHITE HORSES, 610 AVE. VICTORIA, SAN CLEMENTE, (949) 429-1800; WWW.WHITEHORSES.US. CALL FOR HOURS. RESERVATIONS RECOMMENDED. DINNER FOR TWO, $40-$70, EXCLUDING DRINKS. ALL MAJOR CREDIT CARDS ACCEPTED.