Tuesday 6 October 2009

The Sportsman, Seasalter

On the Kentish coast of Seasalter sits The Sportsman. This pub / restaurant has been much talked about, and was this year awarded a Michelin star. Not only does head chef, Stephen Harris cure his own ham, they churn their own butter and even make their own salt from the sea water 50 metres from their door.

A gaggle of my girlfriends come from Whitstable, mere miles away and driving past a few months ago, face pressed to the window, I marvelled at it's remote location. Last Friday morning (they don't do tasting menus at the weekend), I found myself at Victoria station, running for a train to take me to the seaside.

We were fortuitous; the day we picked was beautifully sunny. A quick cab ride took us to the place, and we had a quick look at the sea before heading inside to commence our lunch. The restaurant is sparsely furnished; bare wooden floors match bare wooden tables. It was impressively pub-like for somewhere recognised by Michelin.

The tables were decorated with all sorts of weirdly shaped squashes, from the vegetable garden round the back. After a Bloody Mary pick-me-up we were asked if we wanted a menu or a surprise. We picked the latter. The first natives of the season came out on a bed of clam shells, topped with a slice of chorizo. The oyster was creamy and briny; the chorizo spicy and salty. We were off to a good start.

Next up, we were presented with Gloucester Old Spot pork scratchings with a wholegrain mustard dip, alongside herrings with gooseberry jelly and cream cheese on a rye bread square. Those pork scratchings were addictive. Appropriately salty, slightly chewy, definitely crunchy, we jealously eyed up the remaining morsels, like a Mexican stand-off. On the other side, the herring skewer was a contrast; firm fresh herring meat, slightly tart fruity jelly with a hint of luxuriousness. The excitement was reaching peak level.

On paper, this poached oyster with gooseberry granita and Jersey cream sounds like it would be a bit odd. Sour gooseberries, with cream? However, it worked. The oyster was barely poached, the granita giving a lightness and the cream was thick and unctuous. I enjoyed it, but at the end of the meal I felt that this was the dish that stood out the least.

Bread, which I'm usually neither here nor there about, was served warm with the home-made butter. The butter had a fudgy consistency, and the dark brown, rye-like bread was my favourite. Slightly sweet and nutty, I had to stop myself from stuffing myself silly with it.

Slipsole in seaweed butter was simply presented and simply cooked. The fish slid off the bone beautifully and revealed sweet meat. It showed Harris' deft skills in cooking something that relies so much on its quality, which was top.

Crab risotto was stunning. The intense brown crab flavour in the rice was rich but not overwhelming. It was a perfect portion size as this really was a flavoursome dish that whalloped you full-on in the face. The pile of white crabmeat was contrasted sweetly with the intense umami-rich rice it sat atop.

Home-cured ham was a little dry, but flavoursome in a rustic, heavily porcine way. I admire Harris curing his ham from his own pigs. The fat was silky and melted happily on the tongue.

This was my absolute favourite dish of the meal. Wild turbot teetered on some mineral-rich greenery (spinach perhaps?) surrounded by a smoked herring roe sauce. The sauce was dramatically grey which pleased me, but put off another guest at our table. The flesh was bouncy, so fresh and well matched with the sauce that I didn't want it to end. The plate looked as though it had been licked clean.

Breaded lamb belly slices hid a strong hit of mustard underneath the crumb. The mint sauce gave a welcome freshness to the fatty meat, introducing the meat course well.

Rack of lamb and a nugget of the shoulder were, again, simply cooked. The shoulder was tender and well layered with fat. The little lamb chop was cooked to perfection, and I picked up the bone to have a little discreet gnaw. Another example of the chef letting the natural quality of the flavours shine through.

This blackberry lollipop in cake milk heralded the arrival of the sweeter courses. I wondered what cake milk was, and Stephen, who introduced a few of our courses explained "milk that tastes like cake". And so it did! The blackberry lolly was of the frozen type, and reminded me of jelly and ice cream.

I never really have high hope for desserts, as I'm not a sweet lover myself. However, this filled me with delight. Apple parfait, drizzled with salted caramel and hazelnuts, topped with a sweet caramel wafer, and a quenelle of blackberry sorbet. It was a large portion, but I gobbled it all up happily. Salted caramel really is my new favourite thing.

And to finish, this platter of desserts. Rhubarb and custard sorbet had the added surprise of popping candy, while a shot of chocolate mousse was light as a feather. Lemon and raspberry tart was so delicate I nearly crushed it between my oafish fingers. A candied plum was what it was, and right at the end, the sponge soaked in walnut liquer was nice, but somewhat plain and therefore the weakest of the lot.

Wine prices were almost absurdly reasonable. Stephen explained to us that a lot of the customers have been there before, and don't want to feel ripped off by 300-500% mark-ups. While London restaurants might be able to get away with it, not so here. We started with a couple bottles of Sancerre Clos des Bouffants Roger Neveu 2007 Loire Valley, priced at £21.95. This was crisp, slightly grassy with a hint of tropical flavours that went perfectly with the seafood. For the meaty courses, a 1999 bottle of Château Fourcas-Dumont Listrac Medoc Bordeaux was vanilla-scented, robust and great value at £24.95. We later switched to a slightly chilled Runnymead Pinot Noir which was lighter on the palate and really quite quaffable, before finishing on a glass of delicious Moscatel.

I tried to edit this post down to include less pictures, less waffle to hold your attention more but truth be told, I couldn't bear not sharing it all - I enjoyed this meal so much. True, it is a bit of a schlep being about 1.5 hours away from London, but a good 4 or 5 hour lunch is worth a little effort, especially given it was such incredible value; an aperitif, the tasting menu, a share of the 6 bottles of wine consumed between 5 of us came to £94 each, including the well-deserved 10% tip.

We were the first to arrive and the last to leave, truly the sign of a good lunch. After we waddled out of the restaurant, we decided a stroll along the beach to Whitstable was in order. The waiting staff told us it would take around an hour - after jumping over a groyn every 20 metres it came to more like 1.5 hours. Still, it was a scenic walk and more than enough to blow out the post-lunch snooze.

A full Flickr set of the day can be seen by clicking here.

The Sportsman

Faversham Road
Kent CT5 4BP

Tel: 01227 273370

We came here by public transport. A return ticket from London Victoria to Faversham costs £12 when booked as part of a group and 5 of us in a cab from Faversham came to £15.

Sportsman on Urbanspoon


Neil Davey said...

Wibble. Or possibly *drool*

Or, very likely, both.

Chris Pople said...

Great to read a different perspective on the meal. Agree on the poached oysters not being outstanding but then I didn't much like the parfait either. God those breads though... and the turbot... and the slip sole....

Dan said...

Great looking food, and good choice going for 'the suprise'. I really have to visit The Sportsman at some point, how far in advance did you need to book?

Su-Lin said...

Same question as Dan, how far in advance did you book? And was that £15 each sharing a cab?

What a gorgeous meal! Shall I assume that the "surprise" could change depending on what's in season and what looks good?

TC said...

I think my one remaining day of holiday is going to involve a trip to Whistable! It's been on the list for ages, but your lovely review has definately pushed it further up.

Hollow Legs said...

Neil - Definitely both.

Chris - those breads! So good.

Dan - I don't know how far you have to book, but we booked late July. October was the earliest the 5 of us could get together.

Su-Lin - £15 for the 5 of us. I expect if it was a smaller cab it would be cheaper. I'm sure the surprise changes as what's in season, as you wouldn't get natives all year round. I am looking forward to trying it again in, say, spring...

Helen said...

I am still so sad I missed this :( Then again, like we said, it (hopefully) won't be going anywhere so one day I shall have my meal at The Sportsman. That slipsole is so beautiful and so simply presented. I want to grab it. It really looks like they brought the sea into the restaurant what with that seaweed butter (love seaweed butter) and all the fish and even that little pebble pot the mustard dip is in. How lovely.

tehbus said...

You're well aware of my very unusual aversion to seafood in general (especially since I am meant to be Chinese) but I would happily gobble any of that up. I was drooling at your photo's and your write-up just makes my desire to visit even stronger.

Ben said...

Nice write-up Lizzie (putting me to shame once again with your promptness). As I said on Chris's post I've been boring everyone rigid with my accounts and recommendations since this meal. I thought the oysters were really good (both ways) and that the slipsole was probably the best.

Should also be pointed out that the end of the 90-odd minute walk to Whitstable is marked with another jolly nice pub. Well worth the groyne strain...

The Ample Cook said...

Your photos are excellent. That looks like a truly memorable meal.

It's easily driveable for us, so it's going on the list.

Very good review.

Christopher May AKA DJ Moogaloo said...

Sportsman is always fantastic and they churn their own butter!

Also worth trying their sister pub/resturant The Granville which is just as good food wise and easier to get a table.

Another good eaterie in the area is Jo Jos in Tankerton if anyone wants to do the whole weekend.

Helen @ World Foodie Guide said...

What a great day out and close to Whitstable too (still not been there, amazingly)! Waiting for visitors to London so that I can take them to the Sportsman...

LexEat said...

Brilliant review - I enjoyed it immensely especially with such great photos.
Sounds like an unmissable place to go!

Pete said...

It looks really fantastic. I love the fact that Michelin has started recognise that fine dining isn't about starched white table cloths, hushed conversations, and ridiculously priced wine lists. I feel a tour of Kent's finest eateries is in order. This and Apicius in Cranbrook are on my list!

Anonymous said...

It must have been such a wonderful break: away from London, sunny weather, delicious food and the sea in front of you! That's my kind of vacation

Agirlhastoeat said...

Great to hear you finally went and that you enjoyed the meal. Isn't this restaurant fab?!

Unknown said...

Lizzie this post makes me so jealous. I love the sound of the parfait and thanks for adding in the travel details as well - I always wondered how I would ever get to the sea salter since I don't have a car

Naimah said...

a michelin star-studded meal by the seaside! sounds lovely!



Anonymous said...

Excellent. Glad you enjoyed it! If there is one place I would want to visit before I die this would be it.

p/s that man and his dog must be a regular. He was there on my last visit too :)

PDH said...

It looks amazing and that dog was well cute... This is my goal restuarant of the year I think!