In 1999 chef Stephen Harris took over a tired pub, surrounded by salt marshes, on the East Kent coast. 11 years and a Michelin Star later and it is more popular than ever. Although every newspaper critic and food blogger seems to have eaten here over the years its enduring success seems to be based on a lack of pretension and local ingredients simply prepared rather than any attempts to follow trends or introduce unnecessary flourishes.
About the same time the Sportsman was being resurrected I started uni about ten miles down the road in Canterbury. Although I never ate there as a student we would often drive up the coast on Sunday afternoons to eat cockles by the sea front and have a few pints of hair of the dog at a local pub. So when we started planning a trip to revisit some old Kentish haunts, and to find a few new ones, I knew the tasting menu at the Sportsman would be high up on the things to do list.
We excitedly set off from Canterbury with bright blue skies and sunshine, but by the time we wound our way along the Faversham road to Seasalter the fog was fast closing in across the salt marshes. It made the roaring log fire, warm welcome and pint of Master Brew we received on arrival even more greatly appreciated.
Luckily the Ewing had very kindly offered to take on driving duties and, despite an enticing sign advertising Pol Roger champagne by the glass and a remarkably decent value wine list, I sentimentally stuck with the local Master Blaster. In my student days a pint of 'the Local Hero' would accompany most things and I'm happy to say that a decade later, for me, it still made a great pairing with the food. (and, at 3.7%, four pints meant I could still manage to walk on the beach in a straight line after lunch)
As we stood at the bar they asked would we like to see a printed menu or would we prefer a surprise. Predictably we replied 'menu' and 'surpise' in perfect unison. Instead of being thrown by our indecision we were shown to our table and I was given the day's tasting menu while the Ewing waited for the first course in anticipation.
Much has been said about the layout and service at the Sportsman. Tables are large, and spaced well apart, and there is only one service at both lunchtime and in the evening. On our visit there were two other couples eating the tasting menu, and we were all given tables for four at the front of the restaurant. (the tasting menu is only available for tables of six or less, booked at least 48 hours in advance and not at weekends)
It is touches like this that make it so well loved. The almost permanent fully booked sign in the window suggests they could easily try and cram in more punters, but the sole focus here seems to be simply eating, drinking and having a good time. This is something that seems so obvious but also seems to be sadly absent in so many other places.
Of course having comfy chairs and exemplary service would mean very little if the food wasn't up to par; Luckily the Sportsman gets that one right too. The home made warm pork scratchings served with a mustard and apple sauce are somewhat legendary. We quickly found out this was with good reason as they managed to be melt in the mouth soft and crispy at the same time and surprisingly light for something composed almost entirely of saturated fat.
They were accompanied by a square of pickled herring on soda bread with apple jelly and cream cheese. I wolfed this down and it ably matched anything I've tasted on the Nyhavn in Copenhagen. Firm super fresh fish set off with the smooth schmear of cheese and the sweet, tangy fruit.
The next course was billed as 'oysters'. Firstly they came served with apple foam and an onion puree. Not usually the biggest fan of oysters but these were quite awesome. The mollusc's briny freshness complementing and contrasting with the sharp apple and sweet silky onion.
Next they were served poached with a rhubarb granita, cream and toasted seaweed. The texture of the plump, warm oyster was delicate and lovely and the granita provided a cold and tangy counterpoint. However, I found the cream a little too rich with the soft oyster, even when served with the crispy, salty seaweed flakes.
And then the for the bread; sourdough, focaccia with rosemary and onions and soda bread served with house churned butter. Rather unconventionally this served as a course on its own, instead of something to idly chew while browsing the menu, but this bread and butter this good deserves proper consideration.
The soda bread in particular is worthy of a special mention, dense and dark with a treacly edge complemented by the sweet butter. Moreish and warm we easily managed to eat all of it and rather ruefully had to turn down the offer of more to try and do full justice to the rest of the meal.
The seaweed flakes were also used with the slip soles served with a seaweed butter. The green appearance fooled you into thinking of grassy herb flavours but the iodine rich seaweed taste burst through to complement the perfectly cooked fish and buttery juices. The soft flakes of sole slid from the bones and, as you can see from the picture above, not much evidence was left on the plate.
Next was wigeon, a wild duck shot on the marshes behind the pub and served with quince puree, lentils and mustard. This was a dense meat with a rich smoky smell that reminded me of the gloriousness of really good bacon. The gamey flavour worked well with the contrast of the sweet and sour accompaniments and earthy lentils.
Then the fish course; a fantastic piece of brill with smoked roe that was only improved by Stephen Harris coming out of the kitchen to serve it to us himself. He explained the roe used in the sauce was abundant at this time of year and it was served with some sea beet and sea purslane foraged from the beach that morning.
This was a real show stopper; the braised fish fell apart under the slightest pressure and the sauce contained tiny bubbles of rich, smoky roe that popped on the tongue. The sea herbs added a freshness and a delicate salty edge to the dish.
Next was Monkshill lamb, straight from the farm that you can see from the pub. This was served first as breaded shoulder with a dangerously addictive mint sauce and was described by the Ewing as 'like a posh KFC'. It certainly had that that moreish crunch, but without the grease and with tender, sweet meat that just shredded apart.
Then there was roasted loin and braised shoulder with local carrots, broccoli and turnip. This was possibly the peak of a lunch with so many high points. The lamb shoulder was meltingly soft and the loin perfectly pink with a wonderful proper 'lamby' flavour and just the right amount of chew. Of all the dishes this was the most 'straightforward' but every mouthful was perfect. A special mention must go to the fantastic, glossy, sticky gravy that had both of us in rapture while trying to chase the last drops around the plate.
Finally- time for the puddings! The first was a pleasingly sharp rhubarb granita with a tangy yogurt topping and popping candy. As well as the fizz the candy provided little nuggets of sweetness to break up the sour fruit. Rhubarb's one of my favourites and this certainly provided a bright little flavour punch.
Next was cream cheese ice cream with pear, biscuit crumbs and meringue. Again this was simple but inspired; all the elements were perfectly nice on their own but became brilliant when eaten together. The ice cream was smooth, with a pleasing lactic tang, and each mouthful managed to be perfectly crunchy, fruity and creamy all at the same time.they were far too good to resist.
Warm chocolate mousse with salted caramel was as delicious as it sounds, bitter chocolate and salty-sweet caramel but still surprisingly light. There were also flaky mini apple turnovers; nutmeg-dusted custard tarts with a perfect wobble; dense chocolate truffles and, finally, some almondy shortbread squares.
This was a memorable afternoon; not just for the standard of cooking, friendly service and local ingredients but for the whole experience. After three hours of solid eating and drinking I still didn't want the meal to end. This is a testament to the considerable skill of the chef as each course managed to be exciting, different and, most importantly, taste great.
At £55 pounds a head the Sportsman tasting menu seems a recession-proof bargain and is truly great value for money. And, like many others who have visited before, I'm already excitedly thinking about a return trip to sample some more of this wonderful food and warm hospitality.
Surrounded by beautiful Kentish countryside on one side and the sea on the other it seemed a shame not to explore beyond the pub. So, wrapped up warmly in our hats and coats, we took a walk across the misty marshes and along the beach to try and work off some of our epic lunch.