The Sportsman is a place which has long been on my radar but for whatever reason, hadn’t actually made the journey to it as yet. It’s been picking up plaudits pretty much universally ever since it opened and it’s concept of simple cooking using high quality local ingredients, whilst being a mantra we hear perhaps a little too much of these days, was pretty much originated from The Sportsman when they first started. Spying a free weekend, we (as in some of my family plus a couple of friends) hastily arranged a trip to the seaside. Being in landlocked Birmingham, it’s obviously still quite nice when I get to say “I’m going to the seaside!”.
Actually, the day started really early with breakfast at St John Hotel because well, Breakfast is the most important meal of the day and there aren’t many better places to get breakfast than St John Hotel IMHO. Besides, we had a few hours before lunch so wanted to make sure that we had a good start to the day. So after breakfast, we made the slow amble over to St Pancras to meet everyone else and buy tickets. 50mins on the train and soon we were in Faversham where we jumped into a taxi and through some twisty narrow Country lanes, we made our way to Seasalter.
I had known that The Sportsman was on the (shingle) seafront but nothing prepared me for the fact that it was in the middle of the Countryside , making the location literally surrounded by nature’s beauty. Tranquil and serene, you can’t help but feel a sense of calm and with that, excitement about the food knowing that given they emphasise on local produce, the food should be pretty good given how beautiful the surroundings are. I know that doesn’t really make sense when you say it out loud, but I wanted to convey the sense of calm from the surroundings and the feeling I got that I was about to experience something very special. Once inside, we’re warmly welcomed by the staff and as we all settle down, Stephen Harris himself comes out to greet us. Fortunately for me, YKL and others in our party have been before so although there was a warmth from recognising people, I suspect that he is equally warm and friendly to all whom set foot into his establishment. Over some nibbles of cheese sables, Stephen was impressed with the wine YKL brought with us and tells us of a wine he was sharing with Jancis Robinson the day previously, before bringing it out for us all to sample. That’s right – we were being fed Jancis Robinson’s leftover wine, but there wasn’t a single complaint from any of our lips. Let’s face it, it’s going to be pretty decent wine (even if it was leftover) and well, if it’s good enough for Jancis Robinson – I certainly wasn’t going to turn it down!
Buoyed by that great introduction, they don’t normally offer the tasting menu at weekends but (and I’m crediting YKL with this) they made an exception for us on this occasion so we all settled and waiting for the feasting to begin;
We were all given several different types of nibbles to start with: Some kind of cheese sablé, something with cheese, asparagus and possibly sea purslane?, pork scratchings, not one, but TWO offerings of oyster (cannae remember what the first one was, but the second offering was poached oyster, avruga caviar and pickled cucumber), pickled herring (with mustard) and bread with home-churned butter and Seasalter salt. As I remember, each of the nibbles were delicious – Some hit the spot more than others but things like the pork scratchings were moreish and (thankfully) so much better than the MSG-filled versions that you get in packets these days. If The Sportsman were my local, I’d happily pop in for a pint and some of these delectable pork scratchings. Oysters are always good in my book and these were exceptional, I will happily go back during oyster season to see if I can gorge on Oysters (then probably suffer from gout). The pickled herring was subtle in its flavour and treatment, but beautifully fresh and tasty nonetheless. Last but not least, the (home-baked) breads were delicious and a perfect accompaniment to the renowned home-churned butter (how many places offer their own home-churned butter?!). A fabulous start to the meal.
Next was a dish called Rock Pool. Stephen explained that this was still a work in progress and that some people (looking at YKL) may have eaten a different version of this. In a bowl was some cockles, white crab meat and sea vegetables with powdered seaweed. Stephen poured something similar to a dashi broth from a teapot into the bowl so that everything was soon enveloped by the light broth. Whilst I appreciated the delicacy of flavours and ingredients in the dish, it was a bit wishy-washy for me I’m afraid; the broth tasted a bit too watery for me and no one ingredient really stood out, nor did they really go together harmoniously. YKL commented that she like previously incarnations of this dish, but I think it’s still a work in progress..
Next up was Crab, carrot and hollandaise which was exactly as the menu read – a layer of finely shredded carrot underneath a layer of white crab meat and all topped with a thick hollandaise. Again, I was a bit lost on the concept of the dish – Was the carrot there as contrast in texture or colour? The hollandaise went with the crab, the crab went with the carrot but the carrot didn’t go with the hollandaise. Still, I ate it all..
Following that was Slip sole in seaweed butter – And what a complete joy this dish was! Slip sole that was cooked so perfectly that you would be forgiven for thinking that it wasn’t cooked through (it was in fact, just cooked through so the bone was still a bit bloody). But the fish was so fresh that it was almost sweet in flavour, contrasted with the umami-filled seaweed butter. This was perfection for me and could eat this dish all day every day. In fact, my only gripe was that I couldn’t have more!
After the sublime Slip sole was Braised turbot fillet with smoked roe (and some asparagus). Again, the fish was so fresh that there was a pearlescent sheen coming from the fillet when you opened it and it was cooked to perfection – Just about cooked through, any less would mean it was raw and more would see it overcooked. The smoked roe sauce didn’t really appeal to everyone on the table – Some thought it was an odd flavour combination and that the smoked roe sauce had an oddly cheese-like flavour to it. Personally, I liked this fillet of fish better because it could take a bold flavour like the smoked roe sauce. Still, we all cleared our plates..
The Smoked pork from Monkshill Farm which followed was an absolute stunner of a dish; A thick Pork loin chop (boned) was lightly smoked and barely cooked through, served with some cabbage and a smattering on wholegrain mustard sauce drizzled over. The crackling was golden but could have been a bit more crisp but the meat was amongst the best I’ve ever eaten – So flavoursome and tender. What’s more, there was a THICK layer of fat between the meat and the crackling that just cried out “eat me!” – Even if it was bad for you. The more health-conscious amongst our party left it out but glutton-me ate every last part of it (and had to resist eating from the plates of those whom cut the fat out!). Seriously, even the fat was tasty on this piggy – I salivate thinking back of it now.
Feeling a bit full at this point, we all went for a bit of a walk behind the pub towards the shingle beach. I know the weather has been rubbish but we were lucky in that the day we went, there was brilliant sunshine – It was windy as hell too, but there were white clouds in blue skies. I looked at the lines of beach huts full of envy at those lucky enough to not only have a beach hut in such a tranquil and picturesque spot of England, but to have The Sportsman within staggering distance.
Feeling re-energised after the brusque fresh sea-air, we headed back in to conclude our meal. A brief interlude of shaved pear and cheese got our juices going again ready for dessert. First up was a rhubarb lolly with cake milk. Cake milk; two words which are great enough on their own but putting them together would seem like too much – Like crossing the streams in Ghostbusters or something similarly catastrophic because we wouldn’t be able to handle such greatness. Actually, that’s not the case.. Cake Milk is an example of how 2 +’s make a + I loved the rich, cakey-milkiness in contrast with the sharp (but sweet) iced lolly.
To round off the tasting menu, we were offered Meringue ice cream with sea buckthorn juice. Yes, the ubiquitous Sea buckthorn that seemed to be the de rigeur ingredient in this year’s Great British Menu had found its way into the tasting menu at The Sportsman. Perhaps it’s used as a shining example of how foraged food from our shores can result in great ingredients, and nice as it is, I can’t help but think that its over-exposure to the public from GBM and how none of the judges have liked ANYTHING that it was featured in does it a disservice. This dessert was fine – The meringue ice cream was delicious and was a nice contrast in sweetness to the sharp sea-buckthorn juice, but I wasn’t too wowed by it to be honest.
I didn’t realise that we would be offered mini versions of some puddings as part of our Petit-fours and given how much I love salt caramel, I had to order a full-sized version of the warm chocolate mousse with salted caramel and milk sorbett. A large ramekin of glossy warm chocolate mousse – still wobbly – with a spoonful of frozen milk sorbet dropped in the centre, and at the bottom some heavenly salted caramel.. It was sensational. Not content with the full portion we ordered extra, we even ate the mini versions in the Petit-fours. Hey! If there’s salt caramel to be had, I am not going to deny myself! As for the rest of the Petit-fours, they were all nice but in all honesty, I was in a bit of a salted caramel and chocolate stupor to really register how they were..
As we sat in the taxi heading back to Faversham station with our bellies full, I reflected on what was a really good meal but and outstanding experience overall. Food-wise it was a bit of a mixed bag but the exceptional highs (the pork) and far outweighed some dishes which perhaps needed a bit of work. The setting is so lovely and you can see how the ethos of getting great (local) ingredients and cooking them simply applies here. In that respect, I can seen why people have compared Stephen Harris to Mikael Jonsson of Hedone because they have very similar attitudes in that they create simple dishes and let the ingredients speak for themselves. However, I wasn’t quite as wowed by The Sportsman as I was by Hedone – But it’s not going to stop me going back. Is The Sportsman a “Destination Restaurant” in that should you make a bit more of an effort to go there? Yes, you absolutely should. It’s taken me a few months to realise it, but The Sportsman is an absolute gem and the more I think about it, I realise that despite some dishes missing the mark, I absolutely loved it there and I can see why people rave about it so much. And when a place can leave you still feeling so good about it a few months later, you know that it’s something special.
You can view the complete set of photos on my Flickr