I awoke to the gull’s cry against a pink sky, the ocean in my backyard.
My ledger was blank, save a long seaside walk and lunch at The Sportsman. And it was good.
By the time I reached the restaurant, the wind had rolled back the rosy scroll above, revealing a revery of blue, crisp and taut.
Despite its dreary start, the day turned out brilliantly.
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Stephen Harris – chef, co-owner, forager, and philosopher – welcomed me into the kitchen for a tour and a chat. There, he explained the method for making that fantastic, warm chocolate mousse from the night before. And there, he showed me tins of gypsy tarts being readied for service.*
Phillip Harris – co-owner, wine guy, and all-around good chap – walked me through the restaurant, showing me its bones, akimbo with age, and skimming over its five-hundred years of history. Brother to the chef, he’s also a talented photographer.
Emma Read, manager and hostess extraordinaire, showed me the restaurant’s garden. The lanes between the beds were paved with seashells from the restaurant’s kitchen – an amazing array of oysters, scallops, cockles – recycled as mulch. I can’t blame the beds for being thin, it was the middle of winter. But there were some lovely herbs and a tray of onion sprouts in the greenhouse.
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The tasting menu at The Sportsman can be ordered with a bit of notice.
It’s a series of snacks – like little rounds of shredded pork, done like crab cakes, moist and flavorful** – that lead to larger pleasures – like a meaty strip of turbot, topped with succulent sea beets, on an apricot-colored sauce of its own roe.
Here is what Stephen Harris sent to our table:
Whiskey-Cured Smoke Salmon
Sourdough, soda bread, and foccacia.
Cockles, oysters, local seaweed, herbs, and turbot dashi.
Mustard sauce, Puy lentils, and quince jam.
Sauce of its own roe, sea beets.
Braised Short Rib
Fried potato, roasted carrot.
Ashmore, Mont d’Or, St. Maure, Roquefort, and Epoisses.
Pear William, oat and water crackers.
Green Apple Sorbet
To see all of the photos from this meal in a set, CLICK HERE.
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There’s a story in Harris’s cooking.
It’s a retelling of local food lore through modern eyes; a history lesson and tour of the kingdom with cleverly updated commentary. It’s chapter one, revised.
Ingredients are the heroes, deliciousness its happy ending.
Our first course was a mini cocotte of potted crab, the lumps of meat layered with velvety Hollandaise spiked with mace. In this, the spirit of British cookery was intact, the reference unmistakable and right. This was a playful reinvention of the more traditional shrimp version suspended in butter and mace and served with toast.
Scallops arrived raw, exceedingly fresh, sliced into coins and shingled on slate. Dusted with crumbles of its own roe and foraged seaweed from the local shoreline, it was crudo, Anglo-Saxon style.
And breast of smoked wigeon, a cousin to the duck, came sliced over a hillock of lentils. Mine wasn’t quite as rare as Felix Hirsch described it, but it was tender and good with a smoky cure. A swipe of mustard sauce and a dab of quince jam, this was game charcuterie at its finest.
In the “Rock Pool,” Harris took an unexpected detour, channeling David Kinch’s “tidal pool.” This put cockles and oysters – plump and sweet – together with seaweed and herbs under a cascade of warm turbot “dashi.” A seaside vignette, with a touch of soy sauce, and perhaps sesame oil, it stood apart from the rest as a postcard from abroad.
We returned to England with a mammoth lollipop of short rib, barely clinging to the bone.*** It had been braised in red wine until rendered velvety and soft. Beside it, the Platonic carrot, roasted until blistered and candy-sweet. To the side, a turn of potato, breaded and fried. This was the soul of gastropubbery, honest and comforting.
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We didn’t get to see those gypsy tarts. I think Harris feared that he had tanked us with that fist of meat, and all the rest.
But Mr. Hayler and I trooped on, unphased, through a lovely cheese course and a delicious coffee parfait presented in a verrine. As the sun set, there followed green apple sorbet in frosty shot glasses and buttery squares of shortbread cake.
I finished it all.
What is it about The Sportsman that pleases so?
There are no feats of fancy, no slights of hand.
Instead, Harris’s food returns us to the beginning, focusing on the quality of the ingredients and the level of cooking, both of which are exceedingly high.
It’s not a complicated story, but The Sportsman’s is a well-told one, about a place and a season, with a beginning and a future. You arrive a stranger, but leave with a sense of familiarity, the taste of the sea and land in your mind. You’ll know the place well, even if only during the course of your meal, and you’ll think on it often in the years to follow, trying your best to recapture its seaside scent.
Thrice I’ve eaten at The Sportsman, and thrice I’ve left convinced that it is one of the best restaurants in the world. It stands, a siren, on the shores of Seasalter, begging me to return. I hope I do.
Seasalter Whitstable Kent CT5 4BP
The United Kingdom
+44 01227 273370
* These custardy butterscotch-like tarts were served to British children in schools in the post-War (pre-Jamie Oliver) days, when insufficient calorie consumption was a perceived threat.
** Stephen Harris all but choked when he saw that I referred to these as “pork cakes.” Well, what would you call them?
*** Short rib, you Americans might yawn with boredom. While this cut of meat is ubiquitous in our country’s restaurants, according to a British friend, who knows something about food, this cut of meat is quite rare in England.