review: salt marsh umami…
Steve Plotnicki was premature in posting his Best Meals of 2008 list, on which I am listed with Le Bernardin beneath my name. I told him as much when he sent me the questionnaire, knowing full well that my best meal just might be had whilst on my mid-December trip to Europe.
I was right.
While my dinner at Le Bernardin in May was fantastic, the best meal of 2008 for me happened to be one of the last. So, on this last day of 2008, I give you the best meal I had this year.
I had just deplaned into the depressingly institutional terminus at Heathrow Airport and started on my second cup of coffee (apparently, they don’t believe in any form of air conditioning (i.e. heating) inside the terminus) when a small delegation led by one Brit in a Yankees cap came to my rescue.
Boy, were they a sight for sore and hungry eyes at 9.00 in the morning. I hadn’t eaten or slept in 48+ hours.
It was raining. It was cold. It was London in winter. It was miserable.
With “Gastro Pub or BUST” hanging in our window, an hour and a half later, our fearless leader, the great Moby P, hurled us down the wrong side of the road (if that’s possible – the roads were so narrow I’m not sure there was side to them) past the salt marshes towards The Sportsman in Seasalter, a sleepy community along the southeastern coast of Kent.
It was an especially amusing predicament, if you happened to have just read Bill Bryson’s Notes From A Small Island, as I had.
Chef Stephen Harris and his crew were expecting us for lunch. And we had hoped to take a long walk on the beach before arriving at the restaurant round about noon.
But one clearly does not plan or hope for much in the U.K. in winter – especially not Seasalter, which is like Jane Austen goes coastal, or something like that. In the winter, this remote and desolate area is dreary and has a drama about it. God made this place for me.
So, with wind and rain pelting us from every direction at 10.30, we rapped on the door, and were let in by a warm, gorgeous smile named Emma.
There was a fire in the hearth and we were welcomed to a table next to it. Tea and coffee were brought out.
The Sportsman doesn’t look like a Michelin establishment. From the outside, it almost looks like an abandoned bed and breakfast, or a tavern cum hostel. You kind of get the feeling you’ve been there before – not actually in that particular space, but somewhere very much like it – maybe at summer camp along the coast of New England (even if you never attended summer camp on the coast of New England).
The interior is wood – the floors, the furniture, the bar. Spartan comes to mind.
Here, tidiness is next to randomness.
There’s a dart board in one corner. The windows (from which you can spy the vegetable gardens in the back) are drafty. The bar and dining area run into and around each other. Sea salt lingers in the air. I’m not sure the place has an address other than “old coastal road between Whitstable and Faversham,” postal code CT5 4BP.
Given excellent company (as I was) and a lazy weekend (which this was), The Sportsman is the perfect place to while away a stormy afternoon (which we did). In the five hours I spent at The Sportsman, I transcended reality into a fictional world devoid of all worries and cares, where imagination was not beyond realization.
The Sportsman was boyhood all over again.
At 55£, the “tasting” menu is a shameless steal. I’m not sure how many courses it officially includes, but we, who were piggy-backing on Moby P’s friendship with the house, were served no less than 15 different courses between sweets and savories. (Click here to see all of the photos from this meal.)
The tasting menu is the only way I could eat here – there’s no conceivable way I could possibly choose from their regular fare, which is chalked up on boards in the front room.
Everything looked wonderful.
If the good people at Michelin were to take their own criteria for awarding stars seriously (“Stars represent only what is on the plate. They do not take into consideration interior decoration, service quality or table settings.”), they would realize that The Sportsman deserves three macarons.
And I’m not just saying that because Stephen’s a great guy (I had the privilege of having dinner with him and Emma at a separate venue later that week). Nor am I saying that because I was stark-raving mad with hunger by the time the food started to roll out around 11.30. The food here is mind-blowingly good – no doubt, in part, because it’s mind-blowingly simple. It’s ancient. It’s primal. It elicits four-letter words and facial contortions.
I’ll give you an example: lamb belly schnitzel. I think they call it Monkshill Farm Breaded Lamb Belly, or something rather deceptively harmless like that. This little morsel was utterly devastating – a thin slice of impossibly tender lamb belly meat layered with collagen and a fat, crumbed and fried until it developed a crunchy shell. It was served with nothing more than a sweet mint sauce. I’m still recovering from the realization that I can’t have this at every meal.
Or, the chicken liver pâté, which hearkens the legendary dish at l’Astrance. Instead of layering the pâté between shaved mushrooms, Harris simply scoops a quenelle of it onto a bed of shaved button mushrooms dusted with Parmesan.
Inoculated with Sauternes, the slightly sweet and heady pâté left me undone (at first taste, it reminded me of a sweet blue cheese, like Roaring 40’s or Gorgonzola dolce).
Not a single dish filed a fuss or threatened pretention.
Cholesterol and the sea were the two happy ingredients of our meal.
Pork fat was played to its porcine fullest. There were pork “scratchings” (crispy rendered rind); thumbnail squares of rendered lardo impaled to matching squares of buttermilk soda bread with a touch of butter; and house-cured hams (read about them here).
All were excellent.
I especially enjoyed comparing the difference between the two cured hams. The “white-haired” pigs had a sweeter, fall-fruits flavor. It was also a softer and silkier ham.
The “short black-haired” pig meat was saltier and waxier in texture and displayed a more mineral flavor; it was the Burger’s to the white-haired Benton’s, for those of you who are familiar with that loosely-framed American ham analogy.
Being near the coast, there was lots of seafood. There were oysters: ones wrapped in lardo and deep fried; and raw ones on the half-shell buried beneath a warm slice of house-made chorizo. The latter one was a bit unbalanced for me – the chorizo was very good, if not a bit too salty; its boldness obscured the oyster.
There were scallops too, from local waters.
We had them raw sliced into thin “carpaccio” coins, which were dotted with smoked brill roe and tart petals of wood sorrel.
We also had them cooked and served on the shell. The success of this presentation, for me, was not in the execution of the scallop (which was slightly dense and overcooked for my taste), but rather in the usage of the seaweed butter, a vegetal elixir which did an amazing job of intensifying and drawing the sweetness out of the nugget of meat. This was a fantastic marriage of simple, local products (Stephen later told me that he gathers the seaweed from sea-side walks on the beaches not five-hundred yards from the restaurant.) and much better than a similar version I’ve had at l’Atelier de Joel Robuchon.
And there were pickled herring – one of my favorites – which were served as the perfect chaser to the lardo sarnies on the canapés board. With an added touch of apple butter, these were also skewered with buttermilk soda bread and a pat of butter.
In an amazing (and, I’m sure, quite unintentional) bid for showmanship, each course threatened to unseat its predecessor from its nascent place in my affection. Just when you’re convinced that no dish could top the one you just had, Stephen pulls yet another dazzler out of his hat. I nearly had to shut down the show with the arrival of the Brown Crab Risotto.
It was the color of dark caramel and tasted like a million simmered brown crabs in each bite. To me, this dish, above all others, was the quintessential The Sportsman dish. The flavor profile skirts the coast of Brittany, delicately balancing minerality and natural sweetness. It was intense, perfectly executed (the risotto was porridge-like, without being gruel-like; it was soft and pourable, not stiff and austere), comforting, and the Platonic ideal of what it is. It’s the kind of dish better had at night as it would leave you utterly useless for the rest of the day otherwise.
There was much talk and excitement about a large turbot that was just caught and landed. It had just arrived at the restaurant that morning. It made me a little nervous. Turbot, a more gelatinous-fleshed fish, as I’ve discussed with some good friends (later, in a separate context), is one of those fish that seems to perform better after the meat has been allowed to rest a while. And I wish that the turbot at The Sportsman had been afforded that benefit.
However, what is quite amazing about the turbot that we were served at The Sportsman was its size. I’m sure I’ve never seen such a thick filet of turbot in my life. My portion alone looked like a piece of cod loin.
What is even more amazing about the turbot that we were served at The Sportsman was the presentation. The filet was served on a bed of sliced and sautéed “sprout tops” (even now, I’m not sure what this was – it looked like collard greens, but had the texture of very fine cabbage leaves) in a slate-gray pool of avruga caviar butter sauce.
As I alluded to above, the flesh of the fish was a bit tough for me, but the sauce was absolutely bewitching – it hit all of the right notes on my palate: slightly smoky, a palpable hit of vinegar, and a streak of minerality, all of which was tied together in a creamy medium. I won’t even attempt to articulate the interaction this sauce had with the Borgogne Domaine Leflaive (2006) that had appeared at the beginning of our meal.
Moby P, who has had this dish before, was served a different version. His turbot was sauced with a creamy vin jaune sauce that was no less impressive than the avruga caviar sauce. It had a very similar flavor profile, minus the smoke and traded minerality for sweetness and nuttiness. I really couldn’t tell you which sauce I preferred.
Pistol-handled Laguiole knives (specially engraved with “The Sportsman” on one side of the blade) presaged our last main course: duo of Monkshill Farm lamb accompanied by purple Brussels sprouts, lamb jus, and a swatch of velvety bread sauce.
The lamb loin was tender, juicy, and moist. The square of lamb shoulder, sheathed in a crispy shell of crackling and a layer of melting collagen, was, like most of what we had, simple and good. The flavor was incomparably pure and inherently and perfectly seasoned, owing to the animal’s pre salé rearing. (For hundreds of years, the animals in this region have been allowed to graze in the salt marshes, which, the locals have discovered, naturally seasons the meat of the animals.)
I’m certain I would never drink Domaine Bruno Clair “Les Veroilles” (Chambolle Musigny, 2002) on its own. But with the lamb, it was somewhere near perfect.
I had all but given up on dessert, assuming, incorrectly, that the best parts of our meal were behind us. But Stephen’s hat reappeared. Out of it came a succession of playful and delightful sweets not inferior to the predecessors. There were pink ice lollies, tasting like a field of strawberries, up-ended into cups of buttery “cake milk.”
And then there was that wicked chocolate tart sided by a ball of tangerine ice cream. If that lamb belly devastated me, and the chicken liver undid me, and the risotto rendered me useless, then this wedge of dark chocolate slayed me. The pastry crust was very thin, serving only as a structural support for the filling, a tannic noir de noir love child of mousse and ganache. The pie was blanketed with a super-fine dusting of shaved dark chocolate.
I *heart* citrus and chocolate. Here, the coupling was enhanced by the blissful bitterness of the chocolate, which twitched with the high tang of cold steel, approximating the upper register of the citrus spectrum. The tangerine ice cream alone was suitable for gastronomic framing. It sat on a dehydrated wafer of tangerine so crisp that one could mistake it for sugar glass.
The final flurry of sweets involved one of each: a “gypsy tartlet” (think butterscotch custard), a jasmine junket (thoughtfully topped with crunch granola), and green apple sorbet with yogurt.
Of the three, the green apple sorbet was my favorite. It was a petite pucker – tart, cool, refreshing, and studded with what those zany Brits call “Space Dust” (what the Yankees call “Pop Rocks”).
I note that carb consumption here is not an option. It is a must. The house-made breads were so good that they were – rightfully – served as their own course (or maybe they just brought out the bread and we inhaled it before the next round of food appeared?), along with house-churned butter (house-churned butter!!) and local sea salt.
The foccacia was the fluffiest and finest crumb I have ever had – it had the same effect that very soft water has in one’s mouth. One hesitates to swallow in an attempt to buy a few more moments of having a mouthful of smooth roundness. Rosemary and ringlets of red onions were pressed into the top of the foccacia, which glistened with oil.
The soda bread was just as good. I don’t know if it was the buttermilk in the dough, but this was not like any soda bread I’ve ever had. Flecked with oats, it was the tamest soda bread I’ve ever had – not coarse or dry, like soda bread is wont. This was like eating velvet.
For five hours, we were Stephen and Emma’s family members. Stephen cooked. Emma served.
I want Stephen to cook and Emma to serve me at every meal.
Sadly, that’s not possible. But, that’s just as well – it ensures that The Sportsman will always be a treat.
The Sportsman is the most exciting restaurant I have encountered this year. As you can see from the formidable eating regimen that followed this inaugural meal on my recent trip abroad, it accomplished quite a feat in besting the lot (not to mention the many, many wonderful meals that preceded it).
I admit that the success of a meal doesn’t hinge entirely on the perfection or flawlessness of the food. Otherwise, the dinner I had at per se earlier this year would be occupying this slot in cyberspace.
Eating is a highly subjective experience, influenced by mindset, company, and myriad of other circumstances that no diner can anticipate or control. I cannot pretend or deny that my meal at The Sportsman was gifted with all the right conditions for stirring a perfect storm.
A good restaurant doesn’t just provide fodder for a conversation. A good restaurant is one that romances the soul, captures the imagination, and prompts one to tell a good story. For me, The Sportsman did all this and more.
Giddy, like a pack of school boys who just pulled off a grand prank, the five of us piled back into the car and made a pact to stage a reunion.
We slapped on a new sign in the window – “Nose to Tail or BUST” – and sped off, on the wrong side of the single-lane road between Whistable and Favershem, toward London. We had dinner to attend to.
Seasalter, The United Kingdom
To read about the other meals I had on this trip abroad, CLICK HERE.
Post Script: I have been avoiding all other reviews posted about The Sportsman for the past few weeks. Now, I’m off to enjoy reading about others’ experiences, including those of my rat pack.