The Sportsman lies on the windswept Kent coast, separated from the beach by a tall earthwork berm, the top of which can be accessed via some handy steps and allows you to gaze out over the Thames estuary and see a glimpse of Whitstable in the distance. There was an inn on this site as far back as 1642, and until this year the building looked as if it had barely been touched since then, a rickety place standing in glorious isolation that looked as though it could blow away at any minute. However the Sportsman has now had a refurbishment, complete with new bathrooms, an updated conservatory, and a few rooms to stay at the back of the property that should be open soon to guests.
In this unlikely spot Stephen Harris, who took over the property in 1999, makes the most of hyper-local ingredients, served up with minimal cheffy intervention. The salt on the table is reclaimed from the beach, most of the vegetables come from the patch of land at the back of the pub, the seafood from the nearby fishing port Whitstable and the meat from the adjoining farms. Just about everything on the plate here came from at most a few miles away. The tasting menu is now priced at £70, though there is also an a la carte choice. Starters are around £11, mains (including vegetables) mostly around the £22 mark and desserts £9. Mr Harris recalls that, when he initially started cooking local ingredients, many locals were outraged, being used to microwave pub fare. Now people come from all over the world to eat here, the reservations even for lunch stretching out months in advance. The wine list started at just £18.95 and had labels such as Runnymede Sauvignon Blanc 2016 at £22.95 for a bottle that can be found in the high street for £13, Pemberley Chardonnay 2014 at £39.95 compared to its retail price of £16, and San Polo Brunello di Montalcino 2010 at £77.95 for a wine that will set you back £46 in a shop.
The meal today began with a trio of nibbles. Pickled herring was very good, but even better were silky smooth duck liver parfait with deep flavour on brioche, and a remarkably light cheese and tomato shortbread (17/20 nibbles on average). A further amuse bouche of turbot tartare with yoghurt and soy foam was less interesting, the flavour of the fish a little over-powered by the soy (15/20). Next was butternut squash and crème fraiche from a local farm, topped with a shaving of white truffle. Whilst truffles were a welcome luxurious element, the crème fraiche was rather solid in texture and the squash itself unexciting (14/20). Bread is made in the kitchen and featured lovely soft focaccia, very good sourdough with a hint of acidity, and excellent soda bread (17/20).
The meal got back on track with an excellent dish of crab with carrot, shredded carrot and Hollandaise sauce. This was a lovely dish, the crab vibrantly fresh, the sauce precisely judged, and the carrot giving an earthy contrast to the shellfish (17/20). Also excellent was a mushroom and celeriac tart, which had delicate pastry and plenty of flavour from the celery root and mushrooms, enhanced by a liquid egg yolk in the centre of the tart (17/20).
The slip sole with seaweed butter is a signature dish of the restaurant, and was as lovely as ever, starkly simple yet delicious, showing off the excellent, precisely cooked fish (17/20). Turbot with smoked pork featured precisely cooked fish with excellent flavour, the sliver of smoked pork bringing a complementary meatiness that worked well with the fish (17/20). The final savoury course was “peekin duck” with spiced roasting juices. The duck had very good flavour, the gentle spices nicely lifting the flavour of the meat (16/20).
A pre-dessert of sea buckthorn, meringue and seaweed was doubtless reflective of local produce, but I am unconvinced by having seaweed in a dessert, and sea buckthorn is an exploding grenade of sharpness., spreading its shrapnel of astringency to whatever it touches (13/20). The quince soufflé that followed was a considerable relief, back in the realms of sweetness, the soufflé evenly cooked and having just enough tartness from the fruit to balance the sugar (16/20).
Service was excellent, and the bill came to £102 per person including an enjoyable bottle of wine. If you ordered a la carte then a typical cost per head for three courses with coffee, sharing a modest bottle of wine, might be around £65. There seemed to be a touch of inconsistency creeping into the meal today, even if I ignore the sea buckthorn. In particular this was noticeable with the early dishes beyond the initial excellent trio of nibbles. However even with a little unevenness this was still a most enjoyable meal, and a lovely overall experience. The fame of The Sportsman has now spread far and wide, and rightly so.