The Sportsman, Seasalter
I love the origins of the Michelin Guide. In 1900, hardly anyone drove and even fewer people ate out regularly. Employees at Michelin, whose livelihood relied on cars being driven (and thus more tyres wearing out), spotted the problem. Only 300 people had them in France. They needed to make people drive more. Being where it was, the way to do that was to highlight great establishments you could eat in or stay at overnight.
The coveted Stars therefore meant one of three things. One star (‘a very good restaurant in its category’). Two star (‘excellent cooking, worth a detour’), and three star (‘exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey’).
Myself, LA, CM & MB recently went on a special journey for a restaurant. It wasn’t a three star (goal posts or financial brackets have probably been moved a bit in the last 118 years), but a one star. A one star, which Marina O’Louglin three years ago called her favourite restaurant in the UK – and who no doubt would be irritated by yet another group of fanboys descending on it.
The Sportsman was a run down, travellers’ pub in Seasalter on the outskirts of Whistable. It stayed that way until about fifteen years ago when former punk-turned-accountant-turned-chef, Stephen Harris took it over. Now it’s heavily in demand. It took us mere mortals months to get a booked for this place and we ended up going on a Tuesday night. ‘Worth a special journey‘ it is then.
Whistable is a charming sort of place. It’s still, without a doubt, a British seaside reminding me quite a bit of the Norfolk coast. But as with all English places its got its own individual quirks. Made famous by the oyster industry, the town is now home to a slightly more diverse population. The fishing industry remains strong throughout though (lots of Fish for Leave bunting around) in the way an authenticity-obsessed hipster would adore.
We had three orders of business here: The Sportsman, a trip to the Lobster Shack the next day, but first: a wine tasting.
England vs France 2014
Still in the throes of working out whether I’d passesd my WSET level 2 (I found out the week later I did, cue celebration), MB and I had had considerable chat about pinot. As a suitable comparison, we picked bottles of the grape from 2014. One a Litmus from Cornwall, the other a Gevrey-Chambertin that MB/CM picked up on a recent booze cruise to Calais.
Since beginning my wine journey, Burgundy has become godly by nature. I’ve always enjoyed pinot, but now it’s overtaken syrah/grenache blends as my favourite wine. And as a result, I want to see whether everything I keep reading about Burgundian pinot is true.
My only toe dip in with Burgundian pinot has been light. A negociant-blend from Vinoteca (£29), which was very good though still felt too young. The other: something passing itself off as local from supermarket: which felt too southern to be really considered a Burgundy.
This however was different. Cured venison dominated the nose with black cherry, black pepper and charred wood beneath it. The palate was finely balanced, still clearly with plenty age left in it, but definitely drinkable now. Well done, Jean-Michel Guillon: smashing the insubstantial, though not unnoteworthy Litmus.
“We had a drink in the Neptune,” we told our taxi driver on the way to the Sportsman. “Did you sit outside?” he asked back, knowing that we did. “Well – you didn’t really have a drink at the Neptune then did you?”
You can tell a lot about a place by its taxi drivers.
The Sportsman on the other hand is far more welcoming (to a group of Londoners out on their jollies for a day). From the outside, there is sparse countryside with lambs and hedgerows to one side, and the sea banks on the other. This is the terroir that Stephen Harris and his team have to play with. The pub from the outside looks much like many other: a stoic glass conservatory wraps around the front where you can picture a carvery being served. But when you go in, things are all different.
This is not a run down pub by the sea. It’s simple, but polished. The only sparkling wine they have by the glass is Pol Roger (£10.50), LA & I go for one each, with MB & CM going for a mineral, full bodied Marlborough Riesling (£6.95).
“We can give you the menu now, or at the end?” Our convivial host offers. All nodding in agreement at the surprise, we opt for the end. “There’s going to be five fish courses” he offers while suggesting young Saint-Véran, Domaine Perraud. “If you want anything further down the list, I’ll leave that up to you.” Prices here are reasonable. The retail price of the most wines is about 60% of what The Sportsman sell them at, which deserves a medal in itself in the restaurant trade.
Before the tasting menu starts, snacks are brought out. Herring on soda bread, which I recognise from the cookbook. A small cheesy, savoury bite, and a soft and succulent pork scratching.
Then come the oysters. The one with the cube of diced chorizo on it brings out the saltiness, the one in beurre blanc brings out the texture. The home-churned butter made sea salt just 30 years away comes next and now, every sense is heightened by where you are.
Crab, carrot and hollandaise is rich, served in a tiny pot, and over too soon. The mushroom and celeriac tart is a great example of why tasting menus are fantastic. I’d never had ordered this, I skip over it in the cookbook, but for me this was an absolute delight. The foam well balanced by the texture of the tart base beneath. A second bottle of Saint-Véran arrives.
The infamous slip sole up next. I’d had the sneak peak a few years ago at Noble Rot, but this is something in itself: big and meaty flesh with wonderfully smoky butter. Find me anyone who won’t love this.
Turbot with smoked pork up next and now we’re beginning to flag. How many courses has this been now? Six? Seven? Still delicious though. Then comes the lamb served two ways, roast rump (perfectly pink) and slow cooked shoulder. Both delightful but I’m slightly defeated by this course, LA, MB and CM still holding up strong though.
The pina colada sorbet arrives next. Fun, but perfectly timed, just as I was about to slip into a dreaded food coma. Then the bramley apple souffle with salted caramel ice cream. Whenever I think of bramley apples, I’m always reminded of this. We all nod and agree that this is how souffles should actually be done – and that until that point we’ve never really had one.
Nibbles follow. So does a half bottle of tokaji and a glass of sauternes. We are all defeated. We are all sated. We are all drunk. The end of a half-marathon. Exhausted and on autopilot, endorphins rushing to our head.
Samphire, Whitstable & The Lobster Shack
The next morning, is cooler and there’s a bite in the air. We stroll the seafront. We have a delightful breakfast with bloody marys at Samphire. There are definitely worse places to be feeling slightly worse for wear.
For lunch, we make our way to the Lobster Shack. You have to walk through the industrial seafront to get here (another authenticity tick). Here we have a selection of oysters, prawns and lobster. A decadent although good value (from a Londoner’s perspective) no-nonsense meal. Though it should be noted, the staff’s approach towards customers is strictly continental: ironic given the place’s political views on Europe.
Food and wine are often a centre or at least a cornerstone of most holidays we go on, but this is the first time we’ve taken a trip specifically for one place. The Sportsman is immediately elevated to one of the best meals I’ve ever had status. It’s not just that the food is perfectly executed. It’s not just that we made an effort. The environment is the perfect one to eat in. Relaxed, pretentious by the nature that you’re about to indulge – inside a pub. Convivial. Full of character and life. And then the food is incredible in itself. It’s not 1900, and this isn’t a three star Michelin restaurant. But my God was it worth making a special journey.