It has held a high spot on my Restaurant Wish List for years, ever since I first heard of it during the heyday of eGullet over a decade ago. The reports I had heard and the photos I had seen depicted a very special, old world place. The food was never really too fancy and the setting was never described as over the top luxury. Those things were never the base attraction though the food was fancy enough and the restaurant quite comfortable without pretension. The place, along the Thames estuary, was beautiful enough and the food was always prepared with great skill, but it wasn’t either of those things specifically that attracted me (or others). Those elements certainly counted, but pretty places and good technique are abundant commodities in the high end restaurant world. The same can be true of high quality ingredients. Important? Absolutely! What made The Sportsman, a glorified gastropub under the umbrella of the Shepherd Neame brewery, located in the hamlet of Seasalter near the coastal town of Whitstable, such an attractive destination was the fact that it appeared to be the perfect restaurant for its location.
A locavore’s dream, the self-taught chef Stephen Harris’s restaurant features the finest product that the region offers, with as much as possible coming directly from its environs, such as the lamb harvested from the flock of sheep located directly across the road and the seafood right from the the bountiful local waters, utilizing the produce in a genuine fashion, respectful of the nature of the product as well as the traditions and environs from which they come. That the products are prepared with consummate skill is not to be minimized, as it would all be for naught if that were not the case. There is also plenty of sophistication within the cooking itself, though the diner is never battered by that reality. Above all else, The Sportsman proved to be very, very genuine, lacking pretension, but chock full of real deliciousness, a particular deliciousness, that could only be as wonderful as it is where it is, because all of the parts come together to create the synergies of real cultural terroir.
The Sportsman is not the easiest place to get to, though it wasn’t particularly difficult as destination restaurants go. We were to make a day trip of it and got out early to catch a train from London to Whitstable. From Whitstable, we took taxis out to the restaurant, arriving in time for our lunch reservation. Located just off the Thames estuary, the area is scenic in the most natural of ways, through an evolution over time based upon the workings of the land and the sea rather than a construction specifically designed to be beautiful and upscale. It represents an organic relationship between place and function in the best sense of that word.
Stephen Harris remains the restaurant’s head and chef, though much of running the kitchen falls upon Chef de Cuisine Dan Flavell, freeing Harris up to welcome guests and be a gracious host.
The interior is suitably rustic with plenty of pine and off white coloring accented with crimson drapes and stool tops. The main entrance room is dominated by a small, central bar, flanked by tables, including the one at which we were seated.
Chef/owner Stephen Harris was at the bar when we arrived decanting a bottle of 2007 Grand Cru Les Clos Chablis from William Fevres that was destined for our table. A lovely wine it was, with trademark flinty crisp minerality and enough acidity to add backbone.
There are three options for dining at The Sportsman. The first is an a la carte option from a daily blackboard menu. The second is a five course daily tasting menu at £50. The third is a more robust, nine course tasting menu priced at £65. Of course, we chose the full tasting menu.
We sat down to a trio of canapes served atop unadorned butcher block boards. These mouthfuls were indicative of what was to come – unfussy, but pristine ingredients well combined. These were classic English bites that provided an adequate welcome without overshadowing what was to come. They were good, but the kitchen did not show its entire hand with the first amuse.
The second amuse, a fish tartare with soy sauce foam, was delicious enough, but ultimately showed itself an outlier to the rest of the meal. It was the one dish that did not feel entirely of the place as it incorporated the salty soy sauce. It was a bite, I believe, directed at one of our dining companions and meant to be playful and particularly for his amusement. As it was, it was ultimately the exception that demonstrated the rule.
That rule was laid down emphatically with the next course, one that I had been particularly looking forward to. I had heard much of the local oysters. These were served three ways, one raw and the other two lightly poached. Each contained an embellishing touch. The one on the left was poached and served with caviar and beurre blanc. The center one, raw, contained house-made chorizo. The one on the right, also lightly poached, sported touches of rhubarb, seaweed and rose. I generally prefer oysters essentially au natural so that I can discern better their distinctive flavor qualities. These were treated with a deft touch such that the oysters’ qualities still shone through while blending with the contributions from their co-stars. With treatments as well considered and executed as these, my usual preference no longer mattered. Of course, the Chablis made a particularly suitable match for these delights.
It’s generally odd that bread and butter would be listed as an official course, but when they are as good as these and the butter as special and of the place as this – it even included Seasalter sea salt – it is justifiable, or at least acceptable. There were three varieties – a fabulous rosemary/red onion focaccia, superlative Irish soda bread and a fine sourdough. The butter itself was sublime.
A Cream of Vegetable Soup was as delicious as it was beautiful. It showcased the season with flair and finesse. Most, if not all, of the vegetables were grown right outside the restaurant in their own gardens.
At this point, we poured our next wine, a bottle generously brought by one of our dining companions. I tend to have a love/hate relationship with Kistler Chardonnays. When young, they are amongst my very favorite white wines, but I have had issues with their aging. This one, a 2009 from Sonoma, managed to stay squarely on the “love” side of the line, as it held on to its mineral-based strength. It proved a superb pairing for the next few dishes.
The first of those dishes was an absolute stunner! This crab-centered dish is what The Sportsman is all about and an example of why and how it got the reputation that it has, including having been named “National Restaurant of the Year 2016” in the UK by Restaurant Magazine, the same publication that started The World’s Fifty Best Restaurants list. The crab was generously portioned, but above all it was perfect in flavor and texture with carrot for contrast and a silky, ideal Hollandaise for a creamy, lemony accent. The dish was overtly simple, but perfectly executed with marvelous product. this was an example for any chef to aspire to.
The crab set a pattern that would be followed through the remainder of the savory courses. An impeccable piece of brill was handled with consummate skill. The vin jaune sauce was delicate, but not overly subdued and the smoked pork added the necessary heft to push it over the top. Nothing was revolutionary or truly ground-breaking, but it was all genuinely superb.
Next to the glass was a bit of red, a lovely Burgundy that served well to wash down the remaining savory courses.
As with the soy sauce atop the fish tartare, I was a bit surprised to find maple incorporated into the meal. There may have been some in the area, but I hadn’t notice them if there were. Regardless, it was used effectively to provide a bit of a barbecue flavoring to the gorgeous loin of pork.
The pork was excellent, but the roast rump of lamb was dazzling. Served with favas, roasted scallions and a wonderfully gelatinous gravy, I was in heaven. The flavor of the meat was clean, bright and deep. The fat was meltingly soft and delicious. This was a rustic dish only in terms of its origins, lack of pretension and its location, but it was outstanding on any level, truly indicative of the quality of the products and the care bestowed upon them.
With the savories complete, we were afforded time to get up and stretch with a walk down to the beach, one of those priceless intangibles that make an already great restaurant experience the stuff of legend.
A short time later, we returned for dessert. My taste for dessert has evolved dramatically over recent years. I have enjoyed many great pastry productions throughout my life and have been fortunate to have been treated to the work of some of the very finest pastry chefs in the world. In recent years, though, I have grown away from and weary of sweets, thanks to how I manage my diabetes and the ability to see in real time how carbohydrates effect my blood sugar. As a result, I no longer crave high carb containing dishes like pastas, potatoes, breads and most of all sweet desserts. As with the bread earlier in the meal, I allow myself on occasion to sample and enjoy them, but I no longer go out of my way for them. I eat them only when they are truly exceptional. That has manifested itself particularly strongly when it comes to dessert. My sweet tooth has been whittled down to a nub. I no longer truly enjoy sweet for its own sake and require desserts in which the sugar is minimal and held in check by other flavor elements like sour, bitter and salt. As such, I fully realize that my palate, when it comes to pastry no longer conforms to what most people might enjoy.
The desserts at The Sportsman were well executed, but examples of desserts with limited appeal to my tastes. They were consistent with the format of the savories, but despite the beautiful berries and tart currants in the fruit salad, still too sweet for my preference.
The same held for the Jasmine Tea Junket with Cherries, though with the rich dairy elements not nearly as much. This was closer to my personal preferences.
Mignardises closed out this extremely satisfying and enjoyable meal. We were all stuffed and in need of a particularly good stroll.
We started our stroll in the vegetable and herb gardens behind the restaurant while we waited for the taxi to take us back to Whitstable. A little cloudy in the morning, it had turned into a spectacular afternoon.
We might have spent the night in a genuine fisherman’s hut, but they had been fully booked by the time I had looked.
We made due by taking stock of the fishermen’s docks.
Our visit to The Sportsman and Whitstable came to a close as we made our way back to the train bound for London. We were all pleasantly sated and exhausted from a stellar day and a stellar meal. It was no wonder to me that The Sportsman is as beloved as it is. It is a lovely place with great food, but it is so much more than that. It has many intangibles, but it’s greatest attribute is its genuineness. Many restaurants strive for authenticity, but that is not something that one can attain through effort. It is either there because it is genuine or it is a facsimile. The latter types of restaurants have their place and can and often are wonderful experiences. They are generally welcome as reminders and tastes of somewhere else, but they can never truly replicate the experience of being someplace truly genuine. The Sportsman is a restaurant that is truly of its place, taking that place to the zenith of what it can be. That is not accomplished with pretense, but only by doing things as well as they can be done through hard work without explicitly trying to be anything other than what it is best at. The Sportsman is the kind of restaurant, which in this place can only truly be a gastropub, that sets the bar and becomes the very definition of what it is. That it occasionally meanders and uses elements that don’t appear to be natural components of its cuisine only reinforces the essential nature of what it is. Those little forays demonstrate that they are not explicitly trying to do things other than what is second nature to them. They are not locking themselves into any particular definition of what they should be and by not doing so allow themselves the natural result of being genuine and genuinely great. A restaurant that is trying to be authentic does not allow any meandering from its definition of authenticity, while a restaurant that is genuine does what feels natural at the moment. The Sportsman is a genuine winner!