The Sportsman

http://www.thesportsmanseasalter.co.uk

Faversham Road, Whitstable, UK

I’ve been in the UK for a couple of weeks, back seeing friends & family as well as revisiting a number of good restaurants I hadn’t returned to since I started blogging.

Top of the list was The Sportsman, a michelin starred pub in an almost desolate part of the country a few miles from Whitstable on the Kent coast. I’d been here in January 2009 and had one of my most enjoyable meals. I had to return, booking it 3 months prior.

This time I dragged my wife & a couple of good friends along for the 2 hour trip out of London just to have lunch. I know it seems a little too much effort to go to for a meal, but there a some restaurants which reward this endeavor. The Sportsman is one.

If you book far enough ahead, you can pre-order the tasting menu which at £55 represents one of the best dining bargains you will find, as you will see. It did however require us to arrive for 12pm, so after an early start and a quick stroll around the groynes we settled down for our gastro-tour from a chef who takes inspiration from the finest dining around the world while keeping his cooking as local as possible.

We start with a fresh asparagus with cream cheese tartlet. It serves to freshen the palate and is as simple as it comes. It whets the appetite.

The expectations are risen with an oyster with apple dressing & a morsel of home cured ham, beautifully served on a bed of cockle shells. It’s a pleasant if unusual dish that shows great care and thought. I’m not sure it’s my favourite preparation, but it’s thought provoking in terms of balance of flavours.

The famous nibble board follows with mackerel and apple ‘cube’ which is a great, but everyone’s really interested in the pork scratchings which is quintessential pub food. It is not a food people like to admit to loving, especially the ladies, but people don’t really want to share them or go without their share. They rock.

From the essence of pub cuisine we get a beautiful & memorable dish of oyster baked in cream with rhubarb granite. It’s smooth, rich, sweet and briney.

The bread course follows with home-made focaccia, wheat-germ & a country loaf. They are served with homemade butter (of course) and fish roe. It’s a dish where restraint is required especially with the impending courses. I mostly limit myself to the herby and oily focaccia. My friend Jack on the other hand clings on to the fish roe for dear life and would not let go before it was finished.

The first course now arrives and it’s a tremendous crab risotto. On my previous visit this dish was unavailable and it was the only thing that dampened a great experience. The wait was worth it. I’m a sucker for all things crab and this dish had a depth of flavour you rarely come across. A desert island dish if ever there was one.

A meat course followed – smoked wigeon with quince & puy lentils. Smoky, tender and a flavour that only comes from being well hung. It again did not disappoint.

We were then able to reflect properly on the home cured ham on our next course. I’ll resist more superlatives, but it was rather good and again demonstrated the effort that Stephen Harris puts into his craft and the home grown culture he cultivates.

The next dish was the highlight of the meal for me – braised brill with vin jaun, cabbage and a bad-ass piece of smoked pork. The fish was delicate – edible with a spoon, with the cabbage providing a good bit of bite.

Still the food kept coming. A stalwart of the menu is deep fried breast of lamb served with mint sauce. It’s a pretty unprepossessing cut of meat here turned into a delightful bite. It was much enjoyed.

The savory menu came to end with a rack & shoulder of Monkshill lamb served with my wife’s favourite – Gratin Dauphinoise (my wife would insist on the capital letters). You could see the lamb themselves out of the window in the fields. People talk about reducing food miles and it doesn’t seem to be done any better. It goes without saying that the dish was excellent. It was the details that made the difference with crisp skin (under-rated on lamb) & a meaty jus.

We looked forward to the procession of desserts with a sense of wariness found amongst the full.

1) Chocolate pudding mixture with an orange lolly – It took you back to being a kid again; not be able to wait for a cake to be baked.

2) The wobbliest of custard tarts with a rhubarb compote – it was incredibly silky, excellent flaky pastry and a nice hit of nutmeg. Despite being full, it demanded to be finished.

3) The final assault was the dessert tray

– rhubarb sorbet (or sorts) with space dust

– cream cheese dessert (can’t remember the name, but was indulgently good)

– the obligatory chocolate mousse

– shortbread

And so our meal came to an end with mixed emotions. We were relieved since we were beaten by the quantity of food (all believing we’d never eat again). But the quality and ethos of the cooking will create fond memories for time to come.

There is great generosity in the food – the little extras and the sheer quality of what’s delivered. The chef comes out and explains the dishes with a smile and enthusiasm that you surprisingly don’t often see. It’s hard not to also be enthused in this relaxed environment.

Clearly I’m a fan of this place and although it’s a trek, it’s a place you simply have to visit.

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