the sportsman, seasalter
When we made the booking for lunch at The Sportsman nearly 2 months ago, we had no way of knowing what a beautiful Spring day it would turn out to be. Spirits were high as we made the train journey from Victoria; the sun streaming in through the carriage windows, warming our faces and filling us with a lovely holiday glow. A short 90 minutes later we rolled into sleepy Whitstable, where we promptly got ourselves a cab to our dining destination.
Our cabbie had obviously transported his fair share of Sportsman pilgrims, proudly telling us how the pub had become so popular that advance bookings for Easter lunch are made at Christmas, and that an omnipresent “fully booked” sign resides at the front window. We arrived within 10 minutes and sure enough the aforementioned sign was clearly displayed.
With so many “gastropubs” springing up in recent years, the moniker has kind of lost all meaning. The Sportsman however really embodies the concept, producing Michelin-starred (it has 1 star) food in a relaxed, unpretentious setting. Brothers and co-owners Stephen and Phil Harris take it one step further by taking real care to incorporate regional produce from local suppliers in the menu, something which they have actively sought to do since taking over the pub back in 1999. The vegetables are grown nearby, pigs and lambs bought whole from Monkshill farm a mile away, and they even collect seawater from beside the pub to make their own salt.
There are two menus: a daily-changing menu scribbled on the chalkboard, and a tasting menu featuring a mix of their well-loved classics and newer creations. Seeing as it was our first visit and we didn’t exactly live round the corner, we chose the latter when we made our booking (advance notice is required for the tasting menu which is only served at lunch on weekdays although they have, on occasion, bent the rules upon request – we of course found this out after the fact). Being creatures of habit we sidled up to the bar soon after entering and ordered ourselves a couple of beers (mine was a half pint of Early Bird, a delicious local ale), clearly forgetting there was a tasting menu to be had.
We took our seats at a well-appointed sunlit table and were handed a copy of the surprisingly short tasting menu. Our waitress assured us there were many extra courses not specified on the menu, and the first was one such course – Rock Oyster with freshly pressed Bramley Apple and House-Cured Ham. The oysters were plump and fleshy, and although I enjoyed the flavour combination I found that the salt of the ham overpowered the delicate mollusc (B would beg to differ).
A plate of Pork Scratchings and Pickled Herrings followed, and without even taking a bite we knew they would be magnificent, and they were. Crisp and remarkably light, with slightly chewy edges – this was crackling perfection. The accompanying apple and wholegrain mustard dip was an excellent accompaniment, both sweet and tart in equal measure. The herrings were also delectable, gently pickled so the fish still shone through, with a delightful cube of wobbly apple jelly and nutty homemade soda bread.
Another Oyster preparation came next, this time baked with Jersey Cream and Rhubarb Granita. It showcased the oyster in a completely different way, with the sharp fruit ice melting away leaving the tongue coated with warm cream and a lingering taste of the sea.
The bread plate was generously laden with thick slices of house-baked Soda Bread, Rosemary and Red Onion Focaccia and Sourdough. Not wanting to spoil my appetite I vowed only to have a nibble – enough to try the home-churned butter with Seasalter sea salt (made in-house with seawater collected by the pub), but ended up just about inhaling the lot.
One of the newly conceived dishes on the menu was a Chilled Asparagus Soup, served with a dainty Tart of Asparagus, Homemade Ricotta and Onion Purée scented with Star Anise. It was a lovely dish, each component wonderful on its own but even better eaten together. Simple elegant flavours that got an extra oomph from the umami-rich onion purée. A little stunner.
The Crab Risotto was also spectacular – the creamy rice laced with creamy brown meat gave an incredibly intense shellfish hit, that was mellowed ever so slightly by the sweet white meat resting on top. Deep and salty, it combined wonderfully with our chosen wine, a sparkling Nyetimber Brut 2001 which was resplendent with granny smith apples.
After the rich risotto the feeling of fullness started creeping in, but thankfully the Smoked Widgeon, Puy lentils and Pear Purée was tiny (to be fair the portion sizes are very well-considered, and we had only our opening beers and wanton bread consumption to blame). The thin tender slices of wild duck were distinctly gamey – not something I’d gravitate towards but I didn’t dislike it either, indifferent I think would be the word. B on the other hand quite liked the strong flavours, noting that they were further enhanced by our choice of bubbly.
Next to be presented were slivers of ham, house-cured with Seasalter sea salt. Producing their own ham was a direct result of wanting to use all the parts of the animal and promote less waste (the above printout that came with the ham explains in greater detail).
This particular ham was from the September 2008 batch – high in fat (perhaps disproportionately so) and extremely salty, we found it lacked the depth and structure of its Spanish and Italian equivalents.
More successful by far was the Brill Fillet poached in Butter with new season Asparagus and a grey-hued Smoked Herring Roe Sauce. The dish was subtle and refined – soft perfectly cooked fish and the complex sauce which was an absolute revelation.
Stephen (he’s the chef, while Phil works the front of house) brought out the next course, explaining to us that this dish was created to transform the lesser used lamb breast into something exciting. Breaded then fried, the lamb breasts resembled tonkatsu (he did mention he drew inspiration from Asian cuisine), and dipped in a mint sauce.
The rest of the lamb followed in a dish of Braised Shoulder, Roasted Saddle and Fillet of Monkshill farm Lamb with Sprouting Broccoli. We were told by Emma (Stephen’s partner) that if we were a lover of fat, we would love this. She wasn’t kidding, the thick layer of fat on the saddle was so unctuous that B likened it to bone marrow. The meat was also rather good, the fillet being my favourite, but the fat was most definitely the star.
As a prelude to the desserts were were giving a little Blood Orange Ice Lolly engulfed in Cake Milk (essentially milk in which cake has been left soaking in). The cake milk was a strange but not unpleasant – thick and slightly grainy, it really did taste of cake. I’m not sure if the blood orange icicle worked with it though, being very sharp and cold it was quite an assault to the taste buds.
The Lemon Tart with Meringue Ice Cream (sprayed with salt water) in contrast was expertly balanced. The tart filling was a juxtaposition of tangy citrus and eggy custard, that paired beautifully with the sweetness of the ice cream specked with crunchy meringue. The tart itself was crafted with great skill – a thin shortcrust case that snaps when bit into, and a custard filling with just the right amount of wobble.
To finish off was a medley of desserts, which we were advised to eat from left to right. First a bubblegum pink Rhubarb Sorbet, that had a coarse, almost granita-like texture which was topped with a sprinkle of popping candy (space dust) and a dollop of yogurt. When eaten together, it was akin to a jaw-numbingly cold rhubarb and custard boiled sweet. The Warm Chocolate Mousse was impossibly airy, and hid a thin layer of salted caramel resting at the bottom – a real rich, decadent mouthful. The Violet Ice Cream with Brownie bits I didn’t really care for, being terribly sweet and edging on sickly (it was however, a very pretty shade of lavender). The crumbly buttery Shortbread rounded everything off nicely and went exceedingly well with our coffees.
We sauntered out of the pub just after 4pm, contently filled to the brim and suitably tipsy for the nap on the train home. The Sportsman is really a league above any gastropub (and many a restaurant) we’ve been to with its impeccable cooking and considerate sourcing of ingredients (the beautiful country setting and glorious weather didn’t hurt either). The wine list, although short, deserves a mention for being reasonable with most options cheap and cheerful (hovering around the £20 mark). I think what I liked best though was not just the food itself, or even the idyllic seaside locale, but that Harris’ accomplished cooking is offered up in such pared-down, unpretentious surroundings. So modest that if I had walked in there, not having heard of The Sportsman, I would have never expected such culinary delights to leave its kitchen.
Kent CT5 4BP
t. 01227 273370