If you feel as if you would go to the ends of the earth in search of good food then you will get your wish with The Sportsman, which is just yards from the sea on the Kent coast near Whitstable. If taking the train from London, then go to Faversham and ride what is ironically termed the “fast” train, followed by a 10ish minute cab ride from Faversham to the Sportsman itself.
In this somewhat bleak and bracing setting is the cooking of Stephen Harris, a self taught chef obsessive about ingredients, who bought the premises in 1999. It is a simple pub, with wooden tables, no tablecloths and basic cutlery. There is plenty of natural light in the main room, though the decor has a slightly shabby feel to it in places. Specials are on the blackboard next to the bar.
My most recent meal was as follows.
The meal began with savoury tomato biscuits with Ashmore cheese, which were delicate and enjoyable (7/10). Asparagus tartlet had onion marmalade and cream cheese with sorrel; this was a pleasant dish with nice pastry, but the cream cheese flavour dominated the rest of the dish (5/10). The next dish was an old stalwart with three components: home-pickled herring was served with soda bread, cream cheese and Bramley apple jelly, along with was pork scratching and mustard to go with the pork. The herring was very good and the elements served with it balanced nicely, but the star for me is always the extraordinary pork scratching. These have amazing flavour and lovely texture, and are something special (overall 7/10, more for the pork scratching).
Devilled lamb kidneys and duck hearts were next. The kidney was superb, wonderfully tender and full of flavour, while the duck heart, a potentially tricky ingredient, was also carefully cooked and good. This was served with a little pool of parsley sauce. I was initially anxious about this, as parsley is a very strong flavour, but here it was balanced by walnut oil, olive oil and Parmesan, and was held nicely in check by these other components (easily 7/10).
Next was a pair of cooked oysters: rock oyster was served with rhubarb granita, the other version with beurre blanc. I am not an oyster fan, but these were very good. At this stage the home-made bread arrived: sourdough, soda bread and lovely focaccia with rosemary (7/10). This was followed by a broth made from cockles, oysters and herbs from beach next to the restaurant, with smoked mackerel powder. This had an enjoyable taste of the sea (6/10). The star dish for me was crab, carrot and Hollandaise, served with dried fennel and coriander seeds. The crab was superb, the carrot too had excellent flavour, and the dish was given a controlled but pleasing spicy hint with the addition of a pinch of curry powder (8/10).
Next was slip sole cooked with seaweed butter, served on the bone and palpably fresh (7/10). This was followed by turbot with a little asparagus and a sauce made from the smoked roe of the turbot. Although the turbot was of good quality, it was cooked a little too long, a rare technical slip here (3/10). The meal regained its equilibrium with pork loin with mustard gravy, turnip and cabbage shoots. This was a lovely dish, the pork having terrific flavour, the mustard providing enough bite to balance the richness of the pork (7/10).
I find that the desserts at the Sportsman are nice, but not in the league of the savoury courses. Rhubarb ice lolly with cake milk was enjoyable and had pleasant balance (4/10). Meringue ice cream with sea buckthorn juice, sea salt and crystallised seaweed had nice ice cream, but sea buckthorn is such an astringent flavour that even in this concentration it dominated the dish (3/10). Finally, warm chocolate mousse arrived with lemon verbena, salted caramel, custard tart with nutmeg, chocolate truffles and shortbread (between 4/10 and 5/10 for the petit fours). Coffee was very good.
The bill came to £79 a head with the tasting menu, coffee, water and corkage. Service was charming. This price is a bargain for what is delivered on the plate.
Another meal here was a winter tasting menu, as follows.
As nibbles, pork scratchings are always superb here, made from the pigs in the farm next door to the pub. A little cocktail stick of pickled herring was also very good. An amuse-bouche of raw scallop with Seasalter ham with apple sauce would probably have been better just with the ham and scallop, as the apple sauce rather overwhelmed the other tastes.
The first course of the tasting menu was a pair of scallops served in their shells, one with seaweed butter and one with smoked salt butter (the butters are churned at the Sportsman) – the scallops were brought in just this morning by the fisherman and so were very fresh, and the timing of the scallop cooking was excellent. A winter version of salmagundy i.e. salad featured an excellent smoked egg yolk, beetroot and remarkably good carrot amongst an array of winter vegetables.
For me the star of the meal was the wigeon on a bed of puy lentils and served with quince sauce. The duck had fabulous flavour and the quince sauce was an ideal foil for the duck, the lentils giving an earthy contrast. It was hard to see how this dish could be improved upon.
Next was a little Seasalter ham cured in January 2008, a sort of Sportsman homage to pata negra using the local pork. Turbot with chestnuts was nicely matched with bacon and a parsley sauce, the fish excellent, the parsley sauce controlled and not dominating the dish. Roast saddle of venison was cooked pink and had lovely flavour, with a puree of watercress, bread sauce and a red wine jus. The broccoli with this was a revelation, perfectly cooked and with remarkable flavour.
After a little cheese was a pear ice lolly with ginger cake-milk, the ginger taste coming through nicely. Chocolate tart with tangerine ice cream was the main dessert, followed by a little tray of apple sorbet, gypsy tart ice cream and chocolate mousse with slated caramel.
Objectively the desserts at the Sportsman are a notch below the standard of the savoury cooking here, pleasant though they are. However the quality of ingredients here is second to none in the UK, and the wigeon in particular today was a spectacularly good example of a simple well-balanced dish, perfectly executed.
Below are notes from a meal in 2009, by way of comparison.
The meal today began with gurnard fillets with an oyster and parsley dip. The fish itself was palpably fresh, the taste refreshing (6/10). Pork scratching is in a different league to any version I have eaten before, the pigs here being kept literally a mile from the restaurant, and often fed on apples and leftovers from the kitchen. The pork pieces were served with grain mustard and had lovely flavour; also excellent was herring with apple jelly (7/10). Bread was a mix of foccacia and truly superb sourdough bread, with beautiful texture and excellent seasoning (the latter in particular was an object lesson is what sourdough bread should taste like – 8/10). This was served with butter churned by the kitchen, rich and well-balanced.
The first course proper was asparagus, duck egg and bacon salad. This was a deceptively simple dish, stripped down to its core components, but with superb bacon, in season asparagus and a remarkably good and perfectly cooked egg; this dish is what the food at the Sportsman is all about, with beautiful produce left to speak for itself (7/10). Crab risotto moved up a gear, the crab strikingly fresh, the white crab meat as a garnish, the brown meat used in the stock. Again a simple dish, but elevated to a higher level through fine produce and great care (8/10).
Seasalter ham (cured in October 2007) reminded me a little of pata negra, with great depth of flavour. Fillet of brill was simply the best brill I have eaten, very fresh and perfectly timed, served simply with a smoked herring sauce (8/10). Rack of lamb from nearby Monkshill farm was served in two ways, rack and braised shoulder; I actually preferred the shoulder of the two preparations, served simply with cooking juices and nicely cooked (7/10).
Cheese was in lovely condition, for example a St Maure de Touraine without a hint of chalkiness, Ashmore (like a Cheddar) and perfectly ripe Epoisse. The cheeses here would shame many a multi-starred restaurant in the UK (8/10). Finally a rhubarb sorbet and burnt cream was a refreshing way to end the meal, though it lacked the dazzle of the savoury courses (6/10). Petit fours included strawberry tart and chocolate mousse with salted caramel. Service, led by Emma, was friendly.
The Sportsman is a real gem of a place, showing a care for ingredients that I simply did not think existed in the UK, the emphasis being on clean flavours, served without anything to distract from the fine produce. Yes, it is a pub, with no frippery whatever, and yet I enjoyed the food here more than many places with two (or in some cases three) Michelin stars. It is a pain to get to from, well, just about anywhere outside of Kent, but well worth the journey. As a bonus, it is laughably cheap (Stephen, if you are reading this, look away at this point). The whole meal here cost less than a single dish at some high-end restaurants in the UK, never mind Paris.
Below are notes from a meal in December 2008.
A tasting menu is £55 and this is what I tried, but there is an a la carte menu with starters around £7, mains at £17 or so and dessert at £7. The short wine list is a mix of France and the New World, and is very fairly priced. The vast majority of wines are under £25, which would barely buy an aperitif these days in some London places. Wines include Green Lip Sauvignon Blanc Jackson Estate 2004 Marlborough, New Zealand at £19.95 for a wine that costs about £9 in the shops, Chablis Montmains Premier cru La Chablisienne 2005 Burgundy at £28.95 for a wine that you could purchase for about £14, and Alter Ego de Palmer 2002 from Margaux listed at £44.95 for a wine that could set you back £30 in the shops.
Bread is made from scratch, and the foccaccia in particular was very good indeed (6/10). To begin was a warm Whitstable oyster and home-made lard. A little nibble of herring, apple jelly and cream cheese on a stick was served next to pork scratching with Seasalter sea salt mustard, and a few slices of ham. The ham in particular demonstrates the approach taken here, with the pigs who contributed to the dish just a short distance away, the ham is cured in the kitchen, while even the butter used is churned on the premises. Next was a little trio of scallop dishes in quick succession.
Carpaccio of scallops was topped with smoked brill roe and sorrel and attractively presented on a slate, the flavours clear and distinct. A warm scallop with seaweed butter made from the local beach had great flavour and just a hint of salt, while next was another plump scallop topped with tomato powder and lardo (6/10).
My favourite dish was turbot with home-smoked pork belly, a little broccoli and a vin jaunce cream sauce. The turbot had superb flavour and was carefully cooked, the pork belly delivered a lovely complimentary smokiness and the sauce was excellent, the dish beautifully seasoned (8/10). I had to pinch myself to think that I was eating a dish like this in a pub in Kent.
Next was a fine chestnut soup with confit of goose, the soup showing depth of chestnut flavour, the goose confit adding an extra dimension to the dish (7/10). The only flaw in the meal was goose which, although it had good flavour, was on the chewy side, served with apple sauce, purple sprouts and pomme puree (3/10).
I had wondered where on earth they might find cheese here, and it seems that the chef pops across on the train from Ashtead to buy these in Calais. The small selection was in very good condition, including a fine St Maure, runny Epoisses and creamy Brillat Savarin (cheeses 7/10).
A pre-dessert orange lolly with cake milk was pleasant though seemed to me not to the same level as some of the dishes (4/10), but the meal ended in a high note with a genuinely top class lemon tart, with a filling that was not only very well balanced but had that that soft, almost liquid texture that I can recall from the old days of Nico Ladenis, who made fabulous lemon tarts in London back in the 1980s (7/10). My only quibble was that the tart did not need a raspberry coulis – this was December after all, and didn’t seem to me to sit that well with the ethos of seasonality that the Sportsman otherwise showed.
Service was friendly and I was dazzled by the purity of flavours that I was experiencing. . Chefs so often forget that you do not have to produce “fancy” food to get a Michelin star, and this is a great example of where there is no frippery or unnecessary dish elements, just local ingredients served to show their best flavour.
This was one of the most enjoyable meals I have eaten for some time, and the cooking shows a love of ingredients and passion for flavour that would put many more celebrated chefs to shame. Now all I need is a teleport device so I can actually get here from west London.