16 February 2011

The Sportsman, Seasalter – Restaurant Review

The last few weeks have been fairly quiet on the blog front. I've really wanted to write, but every time I try and put digital pen to digital paper the words just don't seem to form, and the letters remain jumbled and stubbornly stuck in my mind like some tin of Alphabetti Spaghetti. The main reason for this is a trench of work-related crap that I'm wading through at the moment, enveloping me in alternating clouds of ennui and worry. I'm not going to drag this blog off topic, or into a melancholy funk, so that's all I'll say for the time being. So, deep breath, Zen thoughts, and time to transport myself to a happier place by reminiscing over a wonderful lunch I had at The Sportsman pub on the windswept coastline near Whitstable in Kent.

The Nibbler family had rented a house with some friends in Whitstable for the New Year festivities, and we decided to see out the last day of 2010 with lunch at The Sportsman, a short drive away. The journey alone was memorable enough – an exposed coastal road that meanders into increasing remoteness. I had to check the GPS a couple of times to make sure I was headed in the right direction, and just as I thought we had passed the last traces of civilisation, there it appeared, a somewhat shabby, whitewashed pub. Despite our early lunchtime booking, a sign in the window reassuringly proclaimed the restaurant to be fully booked for the day, so be warned if you plan on dropping by unannounced as it looks like you have to do the very un-pub like thing and reserve well in advance. The interior of the pub is fairly spartan with wooden flooring and unadorned wooden tables throughout, but the atmosphere is friendly and welcoming. A crackling fire radiated cosy warmth and our mouths began to water as we gazed at the day's menu chalked up on a blackboard next to the bar.

Brothers Stephen and Philip Harris took over The Sportsman pub in 1999 with financial backing from their music producer brother Damian. Philip was tasked with running the bar, while Stephen set about running the kitchen. The family link continues with Emma, Stephen's partner, managing the front-of-house. Remarkably, Stephen is entirely self-taught as a chef, learning his craft by eating his way through the menus of some of the world’s top restaurants. His initial inspiration for The Sportsman came from a meal he had at Chez Nico, Nico Landenis’s legendary London restaurant, which at the time held two Michelin stars. The idea was to bring that rarefied level of cooking to a pub; Michelin-standard food, without the Michelin-standard snobbery perhaps. Their efforts were recognised when, in 2008, Michelin awarded The Sportsman one of their coveted stars.

The Sportsman offers a tasting menu that is only available on weekdays if you order in advance. Disappointingly, although this was a Friday, the tasting menu was not on offer – I suppose New Year's Eve should probably count as a weekend on a technicality. Anyway, we needn't have been disappointed as the à la carte menu listed more than enough tempting dishes to keep us happy. Harris's focus is very much on sourcing or producing quality local produce and treating it kindly and intelligently. Each dish therefore is a showcase for local ingredients, and it was so exciting to think of such a thing as the 'Kent terroir', a place I had only ever, to my shame, associated with apples and oysters.

To begin we were offered bread. Not usually something to fawn over, The Sportsman’s offering was staggeringly good. Crumbly soda bread bursting with sweet malt notes, dense chewy sourdough, and soft rosemary focaccia were as good as any I’ve ever had. The accompanying house-made salted butter was luxurious in its richness, and even the salt used was special, it being made with seawater from just across the road.
For starters I chose the simply-titled pork terrine (£7.95). What arrived was a thick slab of coarsely cut pork speckled with herbs and elegantly wrapped in cabbage. This was served with apple mustard, pickles, toasted bread, and the most obscenely good pork crackling. The meat was sublime and is sourced from nearby Monkshill Farm, part of The John Townsend Trust, a charity set up to help deaf children. From start to finish this dish was pure bliss.
My friends started with pickled herring and cabbage salad (£5.95) that glistened with freshness, and poached rock oysters with pickled cucumber and Avruga caviar. I wasn’t quick enough to take a snap of the latter, and it had been wolfed down by the time I had fired up my point-and-shoot.
For his main course my friend went for roasted goose (also from Monkshill Farm) served with mashed potatoes, hazelnuts and apple sauce (£18.95). It looked a bit of a mess on the plate, but my friend reported it to be excellent. My eldest daughter, Little Miss Nibbler, had opted for tagliatelle carbonara (not pictured), which she loved. I tried a bit of this and was impressed with the quality of the pasta; thin, bouncy ribbons with a perfect chewy texture.
Meanwhile, I had chosen seared Thornback ray with brown butter, cockles, and a sherry vinegar dressing (£18.95). Accompanying this was a separate plate of mashed and boiled potatoes. Skate wings have to be one of my favourite pieces of fish, and here they were served simply, but flawlessly. A thick piece of wing had been cooked perfectly, its flesh coming away in long juicy strands. It sat atop a mound of wilted spinach and came with the classic addition of nutty beurre noisette, whose richness was cut by a sherry vinegar dressing. The dish's crowning glory was a sprinkling of tiny cockles. It wasn't so long ago that the only cockles you could find in Britain were those drowned in vinegar and cheap white pepper, the majority of them having been exported to France or Spain. To see these little bivalves sitting proudly on the plate waving the flag for British seafood made me very happy indeed.
For dessert I had cream cheese ice cream served with pear purée, meringue and crumble crumbs (£6.95). This was one of those dishes where each component seems ordinary in its own right, but when combined creates a stunning confluence of flavours. The cool freshness of the ice cream went so well with the slightly tart purée, and the meringues and crumble added just the right amount of sweetness and texture. This was a very well thought out dish that was executed perfectly.
However, I suffered a serious case of food envy when my friends’ desserts arrived as they had gone for the warm chocolate mousse (£6.95). In their benevolence they let me taste some. I can safely say my search is over – the best chocolate mousse in the world is right here, in Kent! Fluffy folds of airy, but powerful chocolate mousse sat on a layer of salted caramel sauce, the sweet intensity of the combination tempered by a mild milk sorbet. I don't usually do chocolate for dessert, but this was the stuff of warm fuzzy dreams.
Lunch at The Sportsman was a truly singular pleasure. This meal would also mark another special occasion: my 4-year-old daughter’s first experience of a Michelin-starred restaurant. Although Michelin is certainly not the ultimate arbiter of culinary excellence, the fact that virtually all professional chefs (at least in Europe) regard recognition by Michelin as the highest accolade speaks volumes. Indeed, within the confines of "modern European cuisine" you know that a restaurant bestowed with one or more of the famous tyre company’s stars will generally serve some remarkably good food. And that is what I wanted Little Miss Nibbler to experience: the magic of exquisite food. I wanted her to marvel at the ritual of eating in a restaurant, to taste food she's never seen the likes of, and for her to see the adults' joy and near reverence of the whole experience.

Some of my earliest memories involve food, and I have vivid childhood recollections of being taken to restaurants by my parents – the wonderment and excitement of it all! Somewhere along the way, whether by familiarity or indifference, this sense of magic gets lost. Lunch at The Sportsman with my daughter brought those happy memories flooding back. The lack of frippery here, so often present in Michelin starred restaurants, allows you to focus solely on the food. It is also this same sense of informality that leaves you totally unprepared for the sheer quality of cooking to come out of the kitchen. As a family affair, the pub really is a labour of love, and this passion for impeccable food and service shines through in everything they do. Eating at The Sportsman was certainly a highlight of the year for me and, judging by Little Miss Nibbler’s broad smile, she seemed to have enjoyed it too.

Food:         8 / 10
Service:      8 / 10
Ambiance:  7 / 10

The Sportsman
Faversham Road
Seasalter
Whitstable
Kent CT5 4BP
Tel: +44 (0)1227 273370
Sportsman on Urbanspoon
Square Meal