- Tasting menu at £55/person; à la carte menu: starters from £6-10, mains from £15-22, desserts £7
- For the full set of high-resolution photos, please visit my Flickr set for this meal
From two to four, to the red door
It was winter 2009. We had lived, and ate, it up in France over the Christmas period. My wife was pregnant and didn’t feel like going out to rich dinners (in both senses of the word). My ever-present culinary adventurousness was restless. I wanted something special, something not London, but travelling abroad was out of the question. The resounding answer to my (granted, not earth-shattering) predicament came in two words, an article and a noun: The Sportsman.
Having read and heard about many tales of exceedingly special meals at what, on the face of it, is a simple pub on the rugged seaside near Canterbury from the food bloggers I regularly follow, I decided to book a meal there in April. It would be a special occasion for the two of us. However, it became even more special when we decided it would be more fun to experience this little journey with some good friends of a similar disposition – so we invited @mathildecuisine and @dewilded, who gladly accepted despite the fact that it seemed cause a significant family rift as they had to cancel a long-standing date with their parents. At least they have their priorities straight.
I will not regale you with a detailed history of The Sportsman as somehow it has done the unthinkable in a very short period of time: it is well-known to most UK foodies and a surprising number of international ones, a good deal of whom have made the Seasalter sojourn to experience it for themselves.
The potted history is that English brothers Stephen and Phil Harris took over The Sportsman, a local pub in Seasalter, in 1999. Since then, they have transformed it, not only in looks (scroll down for a few pictures of the lovely country pub interior) but also in terms of the food and drink being served. This was enough for them to gain a coveted Michelin star for their establishment, which they still hold. Many people I have spoken to think it is the best culinary day out one can have in the UK – high praise indeed, and expectations to match.
As my wife was not up for the rather long drive to the coast, we decided to all take the train, which worked out brilliantly – it also meant I could drink as I pleased – and we ended up arriving bang on schedule. We flagged down our limo driver (hehe) and were surprised at his choice of carriage. At least the windows were large.
The Sportsman occupies a rather interesting stretch of UK coastline – some might call it desolate and lonely, others may call it inspiring. I think it’s fair to say that you might be disappointed if you came from afar for picturesque sandy beaches, because it ain’t a stereotypically beautiful beach. The restaurant is the only large structure in the area, and behind it lies a small garden plot, in which they grow some of their own fruit and vegetables when they are in season (it was fairly empty on our visit), beyond which there are a number of caravans parked in a random mish-mash of colors and sizes.
As we had arrived a little early, we decided to refresh ourselves with a walk along the seaside before sitting down for our lunch. We weren’t the only ones who were happy to be there on this unseasonably sunny day.
We decided to stop at the sand and headed back to the restaurant to begin the meal – we were anxiously hungry.
As you can see, it really does look like a simple pub from the outside – we weren’t sure what the inside would hold in store for us.
I think this sign is probably up nearly all the time, but it did make us chuckle a little bit. One nice thing is that, given the majority of their customers come from out-of-town, they do still maintain a bar where locals can frequent (and did during our lunch), and they definitely have not disconnected themselves from the local community.
I loved the rugged old red front door, so had to take a photo, naturally.
We had a great table in the corner of the front dining room, which afforded us a nice view of the whole dining space and also the bar. As you can see, there is a lovely wood-panelled floor, which is original, and the rest of the pub exudes warmth and light (though the especially sunny day we were blessed with probably did help). The tables are very large and well spaced out, and the chairs are comfortable. You can tell that they really care about giving their customers a good overall experience as they could surely pack in many more tables, which would likely sacrifice the calm and relaxed atmosphere of the place that we found to be perfect.
Any place serving Pol Roger Brut Réserve by the glass is a good spot in my book, and of course I insisted we all had a glass (well, Mrs. LF had a little sip of mine).
As this was a rather special occasion – heck, it was @dewilded’s birthday – we opted for some of the nicer wines on offer: a white Châteauneuf-du-Pape and a bottle of 2001 Château Palmer. It is worth nothing that the mark-up (or lack thereof) of the Château Palmer. They apparently got an extremely good deal off of their wine merchants (Berry Bros. & Rudd) on this wine and were actually selling below what I believe the normal retail price would be (it cost £79.95 in the restaurant), so our wallets and taste buds were successfully tempted to the Left Bank.
Tasting for England (via France, Turkey & America)
As I said, I certainly had very high expectations for this meal – after all @foodsnob had said it was probably the place to eat in the UK right now, pretty significant praise – which is not always a good thing, as you can get easily disappointed.
I have to point out that the restaurant had been exceedingly flexible and kind in letting us have the tasting menu (we did ask about this pretty far in advance), even though it was a weekend and they normally only serve it during the week.
Mrs. LF couldn’t stomach that much food, so just opted for a main course. We were all pleasantly surprised and impressed when we saw that they had prepared four sets of amuses for us, even though Mrs. LF wasn’t having the tasting menu – a nice touch.
The pork scratchings were unlike any I’ve had before. By this, I mean that they were sensational. Exceedingly light and crispy on the outside and (some were) meltingly fatty on the inside, the pork flavor was not at all overpowering and they were simply divine when dipped in the apple-mustard sauce. I guess this may be due to the fact that the pigs are literally reared next door. A real winner. 10/10.
As I am still a novice with oysters, I left it to @dewilded to comment on this beautifully presented dish, which I much enjoyed: “As far as I can remember, I loved the additional saltiness of the ham (Seasalter as it was) and how it married to that of the actual salty side of the oyster. The added texture of the ham to the oyster was a nice contrast to what oysters usually are as well, even though I remember these oysters to be quite meaty.” I would agree and also thought that the apple juice added a little hint of sweetness and also some acidity, though it wasn’t the overriding flavour I remember about the dish. 8/10.
Next up was another scrumptious morsel. The pickled herring was as good as or better than those I’ve had in Scandinavia, and paired well with the sweet and sharp apple and just-sweet homemade soda bread. I didn’t feel that the cream cheese added or detracted too much from this little skewer of joy, though I suppose it lent a more interesting textural experience in the mouth. 9/10.
The fourth nibble in this opening quartet was a little bite of vegetal perfection. The pastry shell was the correct thickness – crisp and light – and the cauliflower was amazingly fresh and crunchy, complemented by their homemade ricotta cheese and what I believe was a purée of onion. It was a good sign, as so many places in the UK simply don’t get pastry right in my experience. 9/10.
For one reason or another, this dish seemed to elude most of our taste buds’ memories. I remember that I liked it but didn’t love it, and that the components did work rather well together – I just didn’t think it was a show-stopper. You can see @gourmetraveller’s review for her take on the dish.
After the cooked oyster, we were presented with a simple yet dynamic duo focusing on a singular ingredient – asparagus which had just come into season. It was presented on a different slab of stone, and I felt it was beautifully Spartan in appearance.
This was basically spring arriving on a plate. I felt the real star here was the beautiful little tartlette. It was one of the best and most memorable bites of food I’ve had in the last year. The pastry was again spot-on, and the texture, temperature and combination of flavors was exemplary. Asparagus, spring onion, red onion cheese, shredded lettuce – it all came together in the best way possible. 10/10.
The chilled asparagus soup also tasted distinctly of fresh asparagus and was expertly seasoned; I enjoyed it a lot. 8/10.
The bread was interestingly served after the aforementioned dishes. I had been forewarned to leave room for The Sportman’s homemade bread board, especially the focaccia. I have to say that all three of the breads on offer (sourdough, Irish soda bread and the focaccia) were probably some of the best I’ve had in a restaurant at the UK. I was particularly partial to the soda bread (which wasn’t too sweet, as I find many versions to be) and the chewy-crusted sourdough, though the focaccia was also excellent. 8/10.
Both of butters served were excellent, though Mrs. LF and I were both partial to the very gentle heat in the peppered one. 8/10.
This is a classic Sportsman dish, and many critics and bloggers have gone on about it. While I did like it a lot, I found it to be a little bit of a let-down. It certainly had an intenseness and depth of sweet, rich, fresh crab flavor, and the rice had been cooked properly (retaining that slight bite). I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but possibly because it was the first substantial portion of food we’d been served, I simply lost interest after the fourth or fifth bite due to the fact that all the preceding dishes had been more varied as there were merely bitefulls (save for the asparagus soup)? It was excellent, but not my personal favorite, again possibly due to the sequencing of the meal, and it isn’t one of the things that sticks in my mind regarding the meal a few months later. 8/10.
Next up was a really enjoyable little dish. Wigeons are a wintering migratory bird in the UK (there are scarcely any permanent residents, but about 250k stop in the UK – mostly on the coastland – during the winter) and the ones at The Sportsman come from literally just down the beach, from what I understand. It was smoked and nearly raw, and had a very gamey (yet not unpleasant) flavor, which was expertly complemented with the sweet pear and creamy and slightly sharp mustard. I enjoyed the novelty of eating something I’d never had (and never knew existed) before as well, similar to when I first had smoked puffin with blueberries in Iceland! 9/10.
The local ham arrived with a little card explaining where the ham came from, how it had been cured and where the inspiration was drawn from. I wholeheartedly applaud the team for breaking new ground and trying to make their own cured ham. For me, however, it was simply too salty and didn’t have the depth of flavor that I have tasted in Spanish and Italian versions. I thought the proportion of fat was about right, and a few bites were enjoyable, but after more than that, I became very thirsty and not interested any longer. 6/10.
The fish course was possibly my favourite dish. Well, the seafood part of it was. The perfectly cooked line-caught brill and unbelievably good creamy yet light sauce were the perfect pair – I truly loved them together. The pork was also perfectly nice, and well cooked, although I didn’t think it added too much to the dish, aside from a chewy texture. I ate the pork separately as the fish and sauce combination was more my cup of tea, so to speak. I can still taste that sauce, it was exceptional. 9/10 (It was a 10/10 dish for me if they would have left out the pork).
Just a quick note about the first wine. At first whiff and taste, I was a little let down. It initially seemed very muted to me and didn’t offer up much on the palate. It did grow on me, however, and seemed to evolve in the glass a lot. As promised by Phil, it was very versatile in terms of going with the variety of dishes we had selected it to accompany. So, in the end, I had to admit it had been a good selection, but it is not a wine I think I would return to unless there was a very uninspiring wine list on hand.
Mrs. LF opted for the beef for her main course. She recalls that “the meat was extremely tender and well-cooked. While the ribeye had the characteristic stringy and fatty bits, it was a very good cut of beef, and the shin was also delicious. But what was amazing about this dish was the sauce. It was rich and had a real depth of flavor, but wasn’t overly heavy (like the one I had at the Pierre Koffman pop-up in Selfridges, for example) and was easily digestible. It also had a plummy flavor to it and was slightly sweet, so it possessed that sweet and sour tinge which I tend to like. The sauce really made the dish.
“The potatoes were also nice, especially when split open and used as a vessel to mop up that divine sauce. The watercress puree was a pretty little green blob that dotted to the top of the plate, and I guess it was just another option for introducing a bit of green vegetables to the dish, and I preferred it to having a few bright green English peas dotted around the side – it was a bit more refined and the cress flavor came through well.” 8/10.
The breast of lamb was wrapped in a fried breaded crust and there was scarcely a trace of grease. It reminded me of a lamb breast dish I had at Hereford Road in London (the second time ever I’d tried lamb breast, an under-used part of the sheep), except The Sportsman’s dish was better. The ratio of bread to meat was just right, and the quite strong flavor of the lamb breast shone through but was then cut down to size by the fried crumbs and perfectly enhanced by the mint dipping sauce. An excellent dish. 8/10.
The roast rack of lamb was simply presented and refreshingly unadorned. It was cooked beautifully and it had fantastic flavor. It was something you don’t get very often in a kitchen with such a pedigree, a simple dish with very few ingredients executed well enough to allow the natural taste of ‘what it is’ to come through, to paraphrase Curnonsky. 8/10.
The Château Palmer was still quite young but it was certainly very interesting to taste such a famous house’s wine for the first time – and a nice celebratory wine for @dewilded’s birthday. While it was still hadn’t developed the secondary flavors of a fully matured Bordeaux, it exhibited good black fruit and a note of spice, with tannins that were fairly supple. I think it would benefit from a number of years of ageing still, but the wine showed a lot of promise and did go well with the meaty members of our meal. As noted above, it was very good value and, come to think of it, all of the wine there was very well priced and they had a really good little selection available.
The first up of the sweets on offer were ice lollies, daintily presented in little white cups. The red of the blood orange went nicely with the yellow-orange ‘cake-milk’ and the flavors melded almost as well, though not quite perfectly for me. The blood orange lolly itself was excellent on its own, and I loved the Sanguinello / Tarocco acidic bite, which is milder, sweeter and richer than grapefruit. The ‘cake-milk’ was pretty much exactly what it sounds like, except more the texture of cream…that tasted strangely of sweet full-fat milk. They did go together, and I guess it was almost a posh rendition of the Orange Julius, but I’m not sure they were the perfect partners. Enjoyable and fun though, nonetheless. 7/10.
As it was @dewilded’s birthday celebration, @mathildecuisine had pre-arranged for a cake to be served at the end of our lunch. What we didn’t know was that this was the first cake Stephen had attempted at The Sportsman. Well, let me tell you, the guy not also cooks fantastically, but his cake was also marvellous. It looked very heavy, but it was in reality extremely light and the texture was perfect. Hell, Mrs. LF even ate her whole (and very large slice), and she doesn’t normally like this kind of cake, so that’s saying something.
It was also yet another very kind gesture from the kitchen. And, just like the amuses, they also served Mrs. LF each of the dessert items on the tasting menu even though she only ordered one main course herself. That’s how you treat customers if you want to come back again and again. 8/10.
We were also given small dishes of violet ice cream, which was very good and indeed tasted of violets, but in a very subtle and nice way. 7/10.
We relaxed and reflected on our meal over some fresh mint tea, which was very nice, while @dewilded opted for a more hearty coffee.
The petit fours weren’t actually all that petit, but I wasn’t complaining! The word ‘generous’ again sprang to mind.
The rhubarb sorbet was very pleasant, showing off the sweet and tart nature of the stalks, and enhancing it with a bit of creaminess on the top for balance. 7/10.
The homemade shortbread was also very good, and there ain’t much more to say about that. 7/10.
The ice cream did exhibit the rich and ever so slightly sour creaminess of cream cheese which went very nicely with the sweet pear, into which it was slightly submerged. There were little bits of interesting crunch provided by the meringue and ginger cake crumbs, which added a nice nuance to the dish. This was my favorite out of the final trio of desserts. 9/10.
Worth travelling for
I do have a tendency to go on a bit, don’t I. (Notice that was a rhetorical question). Well, in summary, the food at The Sportsman was consistently at a very high level. Nearly all of it was locally sourced (from what I could tell); it had a real identity; and passion was infused into each bite. Once inside, you could not ask for a more comfortable and pretence-less country pub, and everything feels just right. Phil is an affable, knowledgeable, engaging, confident, humble and chilled out host and the natural light – when present – is soft and makes for a truly magical ambience. It is priced very fairly, especially by London or major metropolis standards, and is unique.
If you live in London or are visiting the UK, definitely try to get there.If possible, I would certainly opt for a weekday lunch in order to sample the tasting menu and to allow for digestion and relaxation for the rest of the day. But I would feel pretty confident in saying that any meal had at The Sportsman would be an enjoyable one. I hope more places like begin sprouting up around the UK very soon. This is what a restaurant is meant to be.
Wine: as mentioned above, while there is a relatively small selection (whites listed on one blackboard, reds on another), it is interesting enough and generally very fairly priced.
For more about my rating scale, click here.
*Note: I have dined at The Sportsman once, and it was for lunch.*