“Whitstable?”, I hear you ask. “Isn’t that in Kent? What’s a Bristol blogger doing writing about a restaurant in KENT?” The answer’s simple. It’s the best dining out experience I’ve ever had, and I can’t think of a single thing to criticise.
The trip came about after chatting to a fellow food blogger, who had visited The Sportsman late in 2010 and gave it a cracking review. “Right,” I thought, “if Mr Critical himself can’t find anything to complain about, then it’s definitely worth a visit…”
My 5am alarm call on the day did make me question whether it was a sensible decision, but I hauled myself onto the train, dosed myself up with coffee, and finally arrived at 11.45am, after an incredulous cab driver took us from Whitstable station to The Sportsman (“You’ve (me) come all the way from Bristol? And you’re (Matt) from Torquay? We get a lot of people from London coming here, but…”)
The Sportsman isn’t your standard Michelin-starred restaurant. From the outside, all you’ll see is a tired-looking Shepherd Neame pub on the beach, which could do with a lick of paint. Tables – without tablecloths – are accompanied by wicker chairs, and laid with a paper napkin and a solitary knife and fork for each diner. The diners themselves are a surreal combination of those who have dressed up for the occasion, and those who have obviously come straight from a walk along the beach, in jeans, windcheaters and sandy boots. Menus and the wine list are chalked up on blackboards, and an open fire in one corner makes the place feel cosier than your typical “fine dining” establishment.
What’s relevant in Michelin star terms, however, are five food-related criteria: quality of ingredients, skill in preparing them, level of creativity, consistency of culinary standards, and value for money. And its thanks to faultless yet unpretentious adherence to these criteria that chef-owner Stephen Harris was awarded his star in 2008.
Previously employed in the financial services industry, Harris only turned his hand to cooking professionally when he was 33: a decision prompted by his love of eating out, and by his desire to create the type of place where diners could enjoy a good meal without the pretension that usually goes with it. It also gave him a public outlet for his passion for locally grown and produced food.
“A lot of people think that if they buy their meat from their local butcher then it’s local, when it could have come from miles away”, says Harris. The Sportsman, however, epitomises truly local eating – a chat with him before our meal served to highlight his passion for what he does and his impressive dedication to local food. Lamb comes from Monkshill Farm, which you can see from the window of the pub. The Sportsman’s position on a North Sea estuary means fresh local shellfish (including, of course, Whitstable oysters), and daily foraging expeditions lead to items such as sea purslane and sea beets appearing on the menu. In addition, Harris churns his own butter, makes his own sea salt, and uses this sea salt to cure his own salmon and ham.
We opted for the tasting menu rather than the a la carte option. Our printed menu on the day featured 8 courses, but ended up running to 13 in total. Super-light pork scratchings and pickled herring were brought to the table to whet our appetites, followed by a massive grin from my dining companion when the bread board arrived. Sourdough, soda bread and rosemary and red onion focaccia were accompanied by homemade butter and a small dish of smoked salmon rillettes, intensely-flavoured after two days curing in whisky, followed by a day and a half in salt.
A fantastic touch followed: neither I nor my dining companion are particularly keen on oysters, which didn’t appear on the menu but which were supposed to be served as the next course. Rather than serve us the oysters, the kitchen opted to prepare something different, namely a smooth and creamy leek-based chowder poured over mussels, thick chunks of salty bacon, soda breadcrumbs for added texture, dried roe and chilli to give a fantastic kick at the end.
The crab risotto featured the dark meat mixed in with the rice and the white meat sitting on top, while the following course introduced me to something new. I’d never come across a widgeon before, but as it turns out, I can highly recommend eating this member of the duck family smoked with Puy lentils, mustard and quince.
Slivers of home-cured Parma-style ham were accompanied by a note explaining why and how The Sportsman create the product, and were followed by a succulent (and surprisingly large) chunk of brill, poached in butter and served with sea beets (picked that morning), the bitterness of which complemented the smooth, buttery fish, and a smoked herring sauce.
These were followed by two of my favourite dishes on the menu. Monkshill lamb belly with a breadcrumb and mustard crust was paired with what was probably the best mint sauce I’d ever eaten: fresh chopped mint with a base of brown sugar syrup rather than vinegar, and just a little malt vinegar added to give it its familiar tang. We hung onto the remaining mint sauce for the next lamb course: perfectly pink rack, and a rich chunk of slow braised lamb shoulder, which fell apart as soon as the fork touched it, and was served with the deliciously crispy lamb crackling still attached, and a bed of sprout tops.
Most of you will probably know that I’m slightly addicted to cheese…and it would have been rude not to sample the cheeseboard. One of my bugbears is that many places will offer a cheeseboard at around the £8 mark, despite the fact that it’ll only have two (generally fairly dull) varieties. The Sportsman’s onto a winner here. At £6.95 for five cheeses it’s very reasonably priced – particularly when it included a local goats’ cheese, Cheddar, Roquefort (all relatively standard so far)…but also a creamy Brillat-Savarin and a (slightly under-ripe, I must admit) chunk of Epoisses, which is one of my favourites!
After cleansing our palates with an apple sorbet, it was onto dessert. An unusual cream cheese ice cream with crushed biscuits and pear puree for me, whereas my dining companion had tried this on his last visit and was offered a rich and bitter warm chocolate mousse with a layer of salted caramel sauce nestling underneath.
This, however, was only the first dessert…we were lucky enough to be able to sample the Kentish classic Gypsy Tart, which is essentially condensed milk and brown sugar in a pastry base…the sugar hit certainly woke us up after our early start!
To end the meal, a patisserie board of an unusual buckthorn berry posset, shortbread, truffles, mini apple turnovers and a fantastic nutmeg-spiced custard tart each made a refreshing change to the normal petit fours served at the end of a meal.
I honestly have no idea how we managed to eat so much, but I’m not complaining. As I said earlier, this was without a doubt the best dining out experience I’ve ever had – not just because of the quality of the food, but because of The Sportsman’s relaxed nature (how often can you sit down and have a pint with your Michelin-starred meal?), focus on truly local produce…and most definitely the service. I like the fact that your water and wine aren’t poured for you – I’d much rather do it myself. I love the fact that I complimented them on their rosemary and red onion focaccia, and was given a large piece of it to take home. I’m especially grateful for the fact that, when our taxi failed to materialise, one of the staff kindly offered to run us down to the station so that we didn’t miss our train.
A tasting menu and two coffees each, plus a large bottle of water and the cheeseboard came to only £70 each, including service charge. Now that’s not bad for somewhere of this quality at all. I admit that it’s a long way away from Bristol (the transport cost me more than the meal!) but I’d highly recommend heading down to The Sportsman if you get the chance. You’re unlikely to have a meal like it anywhere else…
Address: Faversham Road, Seasalter, Whitstable, Kent CT5 4BP
Telephone: 01227 273 370