Tuesday 1 March 2011

The Sportsman - Seasalter - Kent

Bitter experience has taught me that where it comes to dining out, expectation often leads to disappointment. I’ve lost count of the instances where the hype and promise surrounding a restaurant has built up my anticipation to almost feverish heights, but at the end of the night, the actual meal ends with blank looks, shrugs and a deflated ‘So was that it?’ feeling.

Therefore, no one was more surprised than me after a recent visit to the much-lauded, Michelin starred Sportsman pub in Seasalter, Kent. In the resulting post lunch haze, I came to the startling conclusion that it wasn’t just jaw droppingly amazing, but I had just eaten, without a doubt the best meal I’ve ever had – anywhere.

A bold statement you may think, and an even bolder statement if you’re prone to judging a book by its cover. The Sportsman being a somewhat down at heel looking building, just a stones throw from the sea, beside a quiet coastal road, surrounded for the most part by bleak marshland and fields dotted with grazing sheep. Don’t get me wrong; the location has something of a rugged charm to it. But what’s really remarkable about the place is, how unremarkable it is. Unless you knew better, you’d probably drive past with barely a sideward glance.

The overcast February weather on the day that ‘E’ and I visited probably didn’t do much to improve The Sportsman’s exterior charm. The frozen stillness of the grey leaden sky providing an almost perfect backdrop for the unremitting rolling crash of waves on the freezing cold pebble beach and the murky uninviting sea beyond.

Upon entering the pub, the weather outside provided a stark contrast to the charm of the bright, scrubbed, cheerful and welcoming interior. A log fire crackled lazily in the grate, and the room was flooded with natural light from the large windows on either side of the room.

Feeling instantly better about our prospects, we were directed to a large wooden table in the corner. We’d booked for the tasting menu (only available Monday to Friday, which is a bit of a pain in the arse, unless you live locally and are at large on weekdays). Our waitress asked whether we’d like the whole tasting menu to be a surprise, or if we wanted to know what they had in store. Being the busybody killjoys that we undoubtedly are, we opted to know what we would be eating beforehand. Being handed individually printed, separate menus was a nice touch (I had informed them beforehand that ‘E’ of course is a pescetarian and therefore foregoes the immeasurable delights provided by meat, whilst at the same time, embracing the fishy charms offered up by the sea). Which is handy, because at first glance fish appeared to feature heavily.

The Sportsman, as well as being a Michelin starred restaurant, is a pub. A proper one, with a remarkably priced wine list. The most expensive bottle comes in at just under £30. (This is partly due to the pub being tied to the local Shepherd Neame brewery, and therefore having to choose from what’s available at the brewery's suppliers). Nevertheless, it’s a well-chosen list. We decided to go for a bottle of Monopole Blanco 2009, a white Rioja, which we thought might be a good general option to go with the multiple dishes in the tasting menu. More from sheer blind luck than any real wine knowledge, we got it right and the chosen wine was perfect.

A slate appeared with some appetisers to kick off with. Neat looking beautifully fresh squares of Pickled Herring, Bramley Apple Jelly & Soda Bread.

The best pork crackling I’ve ever tasted, light and crisp but soft enough that it almost melted away in the mouth. When combined with the mustard, (which I think may have had a slight touch of apple), it was frigging awesome.

And one portion of Smoked Mackerel, Apple Jelly, Soda Bread and Sorrel (which I didn’t get to taste because ‘E’ stuffed it in her gob without offering me anything but a backwards ‘it was nice’ comment. (To be fair, it was her birthday and I shall of course be adding similar behaviour to the repertoire for my next birthday).

Our next dish swiftly appeared, Poached Rock Oyster, Sea-Buckthorn Granita, Jersey Cream and Dried Seaweed. I don’t think I’ve eaten a cooked oyster before, and now I’m wondering why as it was so bloody nice. The sea-buckthorn, (a wild foraged berry which grows in coastal regions), had a nice sweet, sour note which cut through the rich cream.

More poached oyster goodness followed, in the shape of Poached Native Oysters, Buerre Blanc, Pickled Cumber and topped with Avruga Caviar (Which I was unfamiliar with, and a quick Google has told me is a caviar substitute made from herring roe). Again, absolutely delicious, the buttery, slightly lemon tang of the buerre blanc complimenting the poached oysters beautifully. Lovely stuff.

A board of excellent bread, along with salted butter appeared next. Every element of which including, amazingly, the sea salt in the butter, is made in the pub. (The salt from seawater gathered from the handily located briny deep, just on the pub's doorstep).

The bread, particularly the focaccia was incredible with a beautifully crisp crust and we steamed our way happily through it all at a rate of knots, greedily accepting the offer of a resupply.

A bowl of Crab Risotto followed next, the brown meat flavouring the rich unctuous rice, and little pile of white meat heaped on top. It was subtly flavoured and delicious.

Mine and ‘E’s dining experience diverted at this point, her pescetarian tendencies meaning her next dish was Slip Sole with Smoked Salt Butter. Which was, from the taster I got, delicious and beautifully cooked. The bones, reminiscent of a cartoon representation were able to be removed in one complete piece.

My dish was Smoked Widgeon, which incidentally I’d never heard of and turned out to be a type of duck. It had been shot “around the back of the pub” (presumably whilst in flight, and not put up against a wall execution style). It came with a small pile of Puy lentils and a smear of quince. Again, beautifully cooked. The smoking gave the widgeon a pleasant almost bacon like taste. The sharpness of the accompanying quince cutting through the fattiness nicely.

‘E’s next morsel was a small heap of Whisky Smoked Salmon, which she ate at an almost obscene pace, declaring it excellent with just a slight underlying taste of whisky. I didn’t get a look in.

Eyeing ‘E’s rather more substantial dish and then turning my gaze back to the few scraps of a rather funky smelling meat I’d been given, I couldn’t help but feeling like I’d been stiffed. But what’s this? An explanatory note, which much to my surprise wasn’t from the chefs offering profuse apologies for the miniscule quantity of meat but an explanation that this was their own ham, laboriously cured on site for at least 14 months. I’m sad to say this was the only duff note in an incredible meal. I admire all concerned for the work involved in locally producing a cured ham. But, when the finished result is far inferior to what artisan producers in Spain are making, and having tasted Jamon de la Dehesa de Extremadura Bellota D.O.P. at Brindisa, I couldn’t help but think The Sportsman should scrap the whole idea of ham curing as a bad job and get some of this instead, because it is absolutely frigging amazing. Or, if not, omit ham from the menu entirely. To be honest I doubt very much if anything produced in the UK could ever compare.

Onwards and upwards. A teapot and cups containing ‘Turbot Tea’ was placed on the table. The ‘Tea’ was the stock that our next course had been cooked in, along with seaweed and soy. It was great, and an inventive way of introducing the next dish.

‘E’s menu and mine converged again at this point, Turbot with Sea Herbs (which were apparently sea beets gathered on the beach that morning by the chefs). Another beautiful dish, turbot is always a treat. The accompanying sea beet had an almost sweet taste, at least we think it was from the sea beet and not the sauce, neither of us having encountered it before. There were also cockles, some white crab meat, and a dusting of scallop roe powder.

Another fork in the road. ‘E’s next dish being a gorgeous looking plate of Red Mullet and Bouillabaisse Sauce. By all accounts it was lovely. I didn’t get to taste this either, but somewhat happily because I was totally and utterly distracted by the plate in front of me. The drive in had made me aware that lamb was very much in the offing. Seemingly in fields everywhere throughout Kent cantered cute little chops…I mean lambs… playfully nuzzled their muttons…mothers.

And here it was, Roast Lamb from Monkshill farm (which was just over the road from the pub). A cutlet resting against a piece of braised shoulder accompanied by probably the most amazing mint sauce I’ve ever tasted (so much so that we had a heated 10 minute discussion about what was in it, before giving in and asking the waitress…just demerara sugar syrup, mint and malt vinegar and no crack cocaine apparently).
Anyway, this dish was probably the best, eyes rolling back in the head, thing I ate. I absolutely loved it.

We’d been here a good few hours by this point, and getting near to the end, signalled by the arrival of a dessert. An Apple Sorbet, topped with yoghurt…and, as we discovered once we started eating, laced with space dust – which I haven’t encountered since I was a kid. A bit gimmicky perhaps, maybe. But ‘E’ and I were giggling and smiling like idiots, so it gets massive thumbs up from me.

Our next course was a somewhat more conventional dish of Iced Cream Cheese and Pear. The slightly sour iced cream cheese heaped on poached pear, scattered with a mixture of crumble and meringue crumbs. Absolutely cracking.

Finally, the best petit fours I’ve ever encountered anywhere – Chocolate mousse with warm salted caramel, squares of Shortbread, Mini Custard Tarts, Chocolate Truffles and finally Mini Apple Turnovers. All of it was excellent, but in particular the chocolate mousse and salted caramel was superb.

So over three hours later, The Sportsman tasting menu. Done.

Strangely, despite seemingly eating for England all afternoon, neither of us felt remotely stuffed or bloated, just happily full and contented. This, despite the eight courses advertised on the menu actually somehow expanding into 13 with all of the extra dishes accounted for.

Incredibly, my expectations had been surpassed by reality. Gobsmacking, it just never happens.
‘E’ and I talked about it afterwards, and agreed that this was without a doubt the best meal either of us had ever eaten anywhere, but it’s quite hard to pin down what made it so special.

I think it’s a combination of things, which make it such an experience. The seemingly remote location albeit surrounded by excellent local produce, seafood from nearby Whitstable, locally growing foraged herbs, vegetables from the pub's own garden and a meat from the nearby farm. There’s a complete and utter lack of pretentiousness about everything, from the service to the food. It’s beautifully informal, yet friendly and slick where it needs to be. The food is carefully presented and perfectly cooked. At the end of the day, I think they love what they’re doing at The Sportsman, and it shows.

I cannot recommend it enough, pretty much faultless. I honestly can’t believe I finally made it there after two years or so of wanting to go, and it was amazing. Seriously, drop everything, take a day off work and go. You won’t regret it.

The Sportsman

Faversham Road,

Telephone: 01227 273370



Adam VdB said...

great - will make a date for a trip once the weather warms up.....

Emily said...

mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm nom nom

ChuckEats said...

over 2 different visits, the ham has changed. it's a pet project and i'd expect them to get it right after awhile. for me, it's the ultimate statement of the restaurant though - salt from the backyard ocean, pigs from nearby fields, & doing it all ourselves.

will definitely agree Sportsman is one of the best meals anywhere on any day.

Anonymous said...

You sound just as excited about your meal as I was when I went - the whole experience, not just the food, was unbelievable. And that mint sauce was divine, with just the *tiniest* amount of vinegar to give it that familiar kick.

Definitely going back in the summer. And I'm having a pint with my Michelin-starred meal next time. Just because I can :)

tehbus said...

I don't have too much to say other than it was my favourite place I ate last year too. And I couldn't help but agree about the ham. Funky and easily the worse thing I ate.

Laissez Fare said...

Wonderful post. My meal was a bit different to yours, but had a number of similar dishes too. I thought them all either very good or excellent, with the exception of the ham as you so clearly pointed out also. If you care to compare notes:


All the best,


aforkfulofspaghetti said...

Aaaaand.... taking a day off and going is exactly what we've arranged to do. Given how much you both raved about it on Twitter, we thought there might be a sudden crush for reservations.

Wonderful write up, fabulous pictures. They should be paying you.

Nordic Nibbler said...

Great post Dan. I was there recently and had a truly stunning lunch. The tasting menu wasn't available when I went, but having read your review I'm going to have to back to try it. Pork crackling, mmm...

Gareth said...

Great review, Dan. You have made me a very hungry man.

One reason I think the place is so wonderful is the welcome you get from Stephen and the team. Having walked from Whitstable on a freezing cold day to go last year, we really did get a warm welcome.

The other of course, is the utterly fantastic execution and technique of the kitchen.Anyone who wants to open a restaurant should eat here.

franmouse39 said...

Excellent post, Dan, and so glad you both liked it as much as I do! It is truly a wonderful place to eat. I haven't had the tasting menu yet, but aiming to give it a go next time I'm there.

Patrick said...

What a wonderfully evocative review. Great writing Dan.

Graphic Foodie said...

Wow. I would really like to go here and worthy of a day off work I feel. Fantastic. Glad "E" had such a wonderful birthday meal!

Anonymous said...

oh my, Dan. Great photographs and words. Made me very envious and hungry. Wow.

Hollow Legs said...

I've been for the tasting menu twice and both times it was just bloody marvellous. Such good value too. Major love.

Fatfoodtaxi said...

My sentiments exactly... It was one of the most relaxed Michelin places I have ever been to.. so much so I didn't even realise it was until I read your post. Sounds like you guys had a great day out!

Dan said...

Adamvb - Reckon it would be lovely in the summer with Whitstable just a short walk down the beach.

Emily - Looks good eh?

ChuckEats - I couldn't agree more about local food, I'm all for it. But a specialised artisan product such as a cured ham...I reckon it's just impossible to beat what the Spanish have spent forever perfecting (with associated infrastructure and expertise). I just wonder whether such awesome efforts could be directed elsewhere with more satisfying results. Although I'd be more than happy to eat my words if they manange to produce something amazing.

Bristobites - Honestly blew me away, and was really interesting to compare what you'd eaten to what we had afterwards. (I didn't read your write up till yesterday, or The Guardians because I didn't want it to influence what I thought).

Tehbus - Great value and glad to see we agree on the ham.

Laissez Fare - Really interesting to read your post and see how similiar the meal was, and your conclusions. Also glad to see you didn't think the ham was that great. Not just me then!

aforkfulofspaghetti - Hahahaha brilliant, when are you going Helen? btw, great to see you and meet your partner the other day. Must do it again sometime.

Nordic Nibbler - The a la carte menu looked cracking as well. What did you have?

Gareth - If only I could cook and put food together even half as well as they do, I'd be an extremely happy man. As you say, Stephen and the staff were lovely, warm and friendly. Couldn't ask for more.

Fran39 - Thanks Fran. Cracking place, and you've got a great excuse to go back. Be interested to hear what you think of the tasting menu.

Patrick - Thanks very much!

Graphic Foodie - You should go Fran, not so far from Brighton (same part of the world at least!) and well worth the effort. Shame we couldn't catch up on our fleeting visit to Brighton....next time.

Anonymous - Thanks.

Lizzie - I remember reading your write ups and being incredibly envious. It really is superb. I'd love to go again.

Fatfoodtaxi - Totally relaxed, amazing place. We had an awesome day out!

The Ample Cook said...

What an epic meal. Your write up and photos certainly do it justice Dan. What a lovely birthday treat :)

PDH said...

I still haven't been despite the in-laws being just down the road from here as well. Looks fan-fucking-tastic to me!

Unknown said...

Ok Dan you and everyone else who has ever been just raves about the place so it is all your fault (and theirs) that I am going to have to book a trip there asap!

Jonathan said...

Wow. We've been dying to go to the Sportsman for a couple of years now. And you've just made it a necessity that we visit rather than a maybe.

Great photos by the way.

Mr Manchild said...

I first read about the Sportsman about 2 years ago and considering I only live 30 minutes up the road, I can't believe I still haven't been.

After reading your excellent review and managing to rope in a few friends to come along with me, I have finally booked to have the Tasting Menu on my birthday later this month. To say I am excited is an understatement!!!

Dan said...

The Ample Cook - Thanks Jan. Really, really impressed me.

Pavel - You gotta get down there mate.

Gourmet Chick - I'd love to know what you think of it when you go.

Jonathan - I'm surprised you haven't been already, seeing as you've managed to eat at most of the good gastropubs around the country. Photos - Thanks fella.

Mr Manchild - You're in for a treat! I'd be really interested to hear what you think.

Mr Manchild said...

Hi Dan,

Well last night was the night and i have to say that it was by a country mile the best meal I have ever had.

The menu had changed slightly since your visit. Our first oyster came raw, with apple foam and a pork lardon. The second oyster was baked and came with jersey cream a rhubarb granita & was sprinkled with crystalised seaweed. Both were delicious and even my friend who doesn't usually eat oysters enjoyed them.

Our slip sole came with a seaweed butter. This was such a simple dish, but packed such a powerful taste of the sea. We didn't get to have the crab risotto which i was disappointed about for as long as it took me to taste the broth of the mussel and bacon chowder they served us instead. This was out of this world good and i could have quite literally drunk the broth by the bucket load.

The only other difference from your menu was the fact that they didn't serve us any of the cured ham. I don't know if this has been taken off the menu due to a bad response as of late, because your negative comments are not the only one's i have read recently.

Everything i ate last night was cooked and seasoned to perfection. I love the fact that most of the ingredients are sourced within probably a mile or 2 radius from the place.

The Sportsman totally deserves it's Michelin star and is a real gem in an area that is lacking good quality restaurants. I loved it so much that i'm already planning my next visit for may when i will take the parents to let them experience it :-)

Dan said...

Mr Manchild - Thanks for replying with such a lengthy and detailed comment on your dinner at The Sportsman. I'm so pleased that you enjoyed it as much as you obviously did, and am just a little jealous that you'll no doubt be visiting again before me!

Anonymous said...

I ate there yesterday on your blog recomendation. It was the best meal Ive perhaps ever had. Thank you.