I am not a classy bird. The truth is that words like elegant, sophisticated and lady-like are not ones you’d choose to describe me… and that’s OK by me. On the inside, I’d like to think I’m intelligent, fun, passionate, surprising and all kinds of other interesting things… and I reckon those aspects of me are far more worthy of attention than my body, my clothes, shoes and handbag, how I wear my hair, the fact that I don’t wear make-up or that I walk a little pigeon-toed.
I say this because The Sportsman in Kent reminds me of myself in pub form.
On the outside, the pub looks a little tatty, perhaps even unkempt. If you judged it on its cover, you might not even bother to stop, let alone go in and get to know it. But step inside and it’s warm and welcoming. The space is stripped back and open, with wooden floors, (generously sized, uncovered) tables, chairs and panelling. There are dramatic paintings of seascapes hanging on plain pale walls. Early on an October evening, huge windows spill in lots of light; later candles and pendant lights keep things cheery. And the staff are full of smiles, as they bustle behind the bar getting ready for the dinner service. Throughout the evening they are attentive, eager to help and to share the delight of dinner in this wonderful place.
That’s what this place is famous for, you see.
Self-taught chef-patron Steve Harris and wine-expert brother Phil took over The Sportsman in 1999, with financial support from another brother, Damian. Since then, it’s built a huge fan base of locals and visitors alike and was awarded a Michelin star in 2008. In an interview after gaining the star, former City worker Harris explained that he felt many top restaurants in ’90s London tended to alienate ordinary people “from the experience by all the flummery that goes with it”. He wanted to “democratise” good food by serving it without the frills and fuss. From the start, he focused on using local, seasonal ingredients – something that’s matter of course now but was far less so when he opened. Brother Phil created an affordable and appealing wine list. As a Shepherd Neame pub, the beer was already taken care of.
Our meal is exactly what Harris envisaged – the highest quality of food, cooked and presented skillfully and inventively, served in an informal and relaxing setting by staff who are friendly and knowledgeable rather than stiff or formal. It’s a wonderful combination.
Having made sure to request it in advance, we enjoy the tasting menu which gives us the opportunity to try a much wider selection of Harris’ cooking.
We are offered the choice of seeing the menu in advance or experiencing it as a surprise. We choose the latter, though I do cave and ask for the menu two thirds of the way through the meal! Several of the courses served aren’t listed, so a few hastily scribbled notes serve as a memory jogger.
Pickled herring with crab apple jelly, cream cheese and soda bread and parmesan and Ashore cheese and tomato biscuits.
Tasty little bites to kick things off…
Egg yolk, smoked eel, parsley sauce and horseradish cream with sherry vinegar.
I could eat ten of these, though it’s as well I don’t, given all that is to come. Bursting with soft liquid flavour and colours that are each reassuringly robust and yet work with each other beautifully.
Baked rock oyster, Jersey cream, rhubarb granita, crystallised seaweed.
I’ve eaten oysters plenty of times but never really understood what the fuss has been about. This dish, and the one after, really open my eyes to just how delightful the delicate flavour and texture of an oyster can be, when carefully paired with supporting elements.
Poached rock oyster, beurre blanc, pickled cucumber, avruga caviar.
If the previous dish opened my eyes, this one opens my heart to oysters! I’ll never look at them in the same way again. Yes, it’s that astounding!
Bread, butter and salt.
Not only are the three breads home-made – rosemary and red onion foccacia, sourdough and malted soda bread – but the butter is home-churned and even the salt is made from Seasalter sea water. I like all the breads but the dark soda bread in particular is a source of joy.
Salt-baked celeriac, stewed apple and fresh cheese.
I’ve encountered salt-baked celeriac a few times in the last couple of years, in Scandinavian cookery demonstrations and classes, mostly. I really like it’s earthy taste and slight sweetness. I find the mustardy sauce a little too strong in this dish, though.
Crab, carrot and hollandaise.
I’m not sure the carrot adds much on the taste front and though the colour is pretty, I find the crunch a little odd against the crab. But the crab is super! Fresh and sweet and generous and gone far too quickly!
Slip sole in seaweed butter.
Slip sole, so Wiki informs me, is simply the name we give to small common sole; I haven’t come across it before. Firm, delicate and buttery but easy to slip off the bone, it’s fantastically well paired with the salty mineral flavours of the seaweed butter.
Later, at the bar, Phillip Harris tells me about how they dry the seaweed themselves; I’m minded to try some Mara Seaweed varieties mixed with butter and served over white fish or scallops.
Brill braised in vin jaune with bearded tooth fungus.
This simple dish is my favourite of the whole meal. The way the vin jaune sets off the fish without overwhelming it is an utter delight. With a little sweet crunch from the beans and soft woodiness from the mushrooms, this plate is so tasty, so simple and so well-balanced I am left wondering why I don’t eat seafood more often.
Lamb from Monkshill Farm (1).
Little two-bite breaded morsels of tender lamb belly are served with a fresh mint sauce. Unlike the usual vinegary condiment, this mint sauce is beautifully sweet and sharp and herbaceous and I find myself drinking sip after sip from the little cup, after the lamb is eaten. Of course, I haven’t realised another lamb dish is coming but our waitress doesn’t blink an eyelid and brings out more sauce before the next dish arrives.
Lamb from Monkshill Farm (2).
The second serving of lamb includes a plump piece of rump and a cube of braised lamb shoulder. The first is a touch chewier than expected, but tastes very good. The second is marvellously soft and richly flavoured by its high fat content. I love the crispy charred spring onions and fresh sweet carrot but yearn for a little more sauce.
Wild bramble ice lolly.
Essence of blackberries, the lolly starts to melt quickly. It’s served with a “cake cream” made from Madeira cake, cream and milk and the contrast between that and the juicy ice lolly is almost shocking to the palate. Fabulous!
Meringue ice cream, sea buckthorn and seawater.
When I’ve had sea buckthorn before, this citrussy fruit must have been sweetened quite a bit. Here it’s very sharp, too sharp for me, and my jaws clench against the astringency. Pete, on the other hand, finds it delicious.
Jasmine tea junket with rosehip sauce and breakfast crunch.
This dish isn’t on the tasting menu, but having spotted it on the à la carte puddings board, I asked earlier whether we might add it on as an extra or if one of us could swap out the meringue and buckthorn dessert. I’ve heard of junket, you see, but don’t think I’ve tried it before and I’d like to. Phillip graciously makes it a swap so Pete and share one of each between us. I am glad to try this, especially as the other dessert is too sharp for me. I love the wobbly nature of the set milk junket – though I struggle to detect any jasmine – and I enjoy the fruity sauce and the slightly incongruous crunch of granola and toasted seeds on top.
Already full to bursting, we only just manage these tiny custard and raspberry and chocolate tarts; crumbly pastry, gooey fillings. A lovely full stop to an epic meal.
All of this for just £65 per head (tasting menu) is astonishingly good value; a hard-to-get-my-head-around kind of good value, honestly speaking. The food, the setting, the service and the price all make it a no-brainer that this place is as well-loved as it is. Reservations are most definitely needed. The tasting menu must be booked 48 hours in advance.
We stayed overnight in a seafront hotel in nearby Whitstable and drove home through the most spectacular sheet lightning display I’ve ever seen. Bright enough to light up everything around us like day – if I’d been told it was a lightshow put on by The Sportsman, I might well have believed it. They are awfully talented!