I try the Sportsman in Kent for the first time

Saturday, December 27th , 2008

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I had wondered for a while about visiting The Sportsman. It is on the Kent coast near Whistable, and from West London it is literally quicker to get to Paris. I finally made it this week, and was delighted that I persevered with the tube, train and husky sled team journey that is necessary to get there. The pub is unpromising: fairly ramshackle and in sore need of a coat of paint, a few yards from the windswept beach (pictured) with its drab beach bungalows – Cannes it is not. In this unlikely setting self-taught chef Stephen Harris shows a remarkable passion for ingredients: the butter is churned in the kitchen, the ham is cured; even the seaweed butter and salt are made from scratch using the products of the beach. The food is pared down to the minimum, and is all about pure flavour rather than garnishes and flourishes. A dish of turbot, topped with smoked pork belly and a vin jaune sauce was dazzling in its purity.  The fish was superb, the smokiness of the pro belly giving an earthy contrast to the creamy sauce and the fish, while the seasoning was exact. This was a magnificent piece of cooking, beautiful in its simplicity.
The rest of the meal also showed the care and attention that has earned the Sportsman its Michelin star. I was particularly taken with a lemon tart, which had the perfectly balanced acidity and the risky, almost liquid texture that I can remember from the glory days of Marco Pierre White and Nico Ladenis. Other dishes stood out for their fine ingredients, a series of scallop dishes with lovely diver-caught scallops, intense chestnut soup with goose confit. This could not be further from the mediocre money-grabbing franchises of top chefs that we see all too much of these days, and demonstrates that a self-taught cook can really make waves, even out here. The Sportsman is a superb example of British cooking at its best.  Hitch up the huskies and make the trek.

After cooking for a few days at home I was in need of some spice, and returned to my old favourite The Brilliant in Southall. They even had a turkey masala - loading turkey up with spices is probably about the best thing you can do with this disappointing meat which us Brits all inexplicably favour at Christmas, and even with the spices it was rather dry.  The French, who can be trusted on the subject of food, sensibly spurn turkey and cook a capon, or perhaps a goose.  The rest of the food at the Brilliant was up to the usual consistently high standard, with tender tandoori prawns and spicy methi chicken with a rich, complex, spicy sauce.

This time of year is a tricky time to eat out in London. Many restaurants close down over Christmas right through the New Year in London, and the places that do open on Christmas Day and New Years Day tend to offer special “festive” packages – translation: twice the usual price for a limited set menu.  Getting produce is a problem: few fishing boats go out, so restaurants that serve fish are almost all using frozen fish. It is the time to cook a little at home and savour some fine wine, with the added bonus that you are paying retail price for your wine, rather than the quadruple price you pay in London restaurants.

I hope you had a lovely Christmas, and wish you a very happy New Year.