In those moments when we’re able to escape the undercurrent that sweeps us along blindly, we surface to discover the world, steady and still, peaceful and patient. There, we find a tavern, just this side of the sea wall, beyond which a windswept shelf of shells slides into the sea.
This is the coast of Kent, where time has been suspended between salt marshes and beach huts. This is The Sportsman, where I marked a seminal meal in late 2008, at table with friends. And this is where I returned in the early hours of 2011, a stumble through the wardrobe for a Midwestern boy who rarely visits, but often dreams.
Here, I stayed awhile, a lolling start to my three weeks abroad.
Here, I dove into a brave new world, welcomed by Stephen Harris, chef and thinker, and Emma Read, hostess and confidante.
But most significantly, here, I returned to taste the salt marsh umami I remembered so well.
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I found The Sportsman just as I had left it: rosy and cosy, idyllic and gothic. Little had changed since my last visit, least of which was the food.
Due to a blip in my flight pattern, I arrived too late for my lunch reservation, so off to London I went first, answering the gluttonous call of Food Snob, who promised a show in town.
But Emma graciously lined off a square of turf for me that night, a table for one. With a tasting menu planned and promised for the next day, I went to the chalkboard and ordered my dinner à la carte.
Here is what I had:
The Sportsman Breads
Soda bread, sourdough, and focaccia.
House-churned butter and olives.
Beurre monte, cucumber, avruga caviar.
Seared Thornback Ray
Cockles, sherry vinegar, brown butter.
Shoulder, saddle, and fillet, with pommes Anna and dark greens; mint sauce.
Milk ice cream
To see all of the photos from this dinner, CLICK HERE. Or, click on the courses above for the individual photos.
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Disclosure: I know Stephen Harris and Emma Read, and they know me. They received me like a prince and fed me like family. To them, I owe a great thanks for their hospitality.
But none of that should discount what I’m about to tell you.
The food here is fantastic. It’s not the height of sophistication, but it is the height of pleasure. Everything is simple and tidy, comforting and clean. Harris charts the briny waters between Dover and Brittany, rich with minerals and a dash of acid.
I’m convinced that you could throw a dart at their menu and hit a winner.
That’s almost how I went about ordering, though I did let Emma guide me a bit.
I love skate, and so I had to have the Thornback ray. The fan of wing, served on the bone, was soft and smooth, slightly gelatinous. It was perfect aged, perfectly cooked. Stained with brown butter and cut with sherry vinegar, the fish arrived on a bed of shredded cabbage, hosting a party of cockles.
And after it, a trio of lamb: the shoulder, crisp and dark; the saddle, tender and rosy; and the loin, a silky spokesman for pré-salé, a local method of grazing and “seasoning” sheep in salt marshes. This kind of flavor you won’t find in meat anywhere else in the world.
I’ve never cared for mint jelly with lamb. But I liked Stephen Harris’s mint syrup with lamb. It was surprisingly sweet, surprisingly good; a touch of acid.
And a wedge of pommes Anna, waxy, creamy, delicious.
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At the risk of hyperbole, I would cross the ocean just to have Harris’s breads. His soda bread is like a swatch of chenille stitched in a toasty frame. It’s great.
A friend in Kansas City, whom I had sent to The Sportsman last year, begged me to overnight a box of his focaccia back to her at home. Had I done it, I’m sure she would have footed the bill happily. It really is that good: fine and fluffy with a wonderfully oily crust.
He churns his own butter. And he makes his own desserts.
But first, there was a slice of “Ashmore” cheese, made not a mile from the restaurant. It’s like a cheddar, of the tangy variety.
I let Emma order my pudding.
I have to admit, I was a bit deflated by her choice at first. But when it arrived, a scoop of milk ice cream hugged by a frothy mantle of dark chocolate mousse, I nearly melted into the ramekin with joy. Like everything else at The Sportsman, it was deceptively simple, unexpectedly great.
The chocolate mousse was impossibly fluffy and light, like a whipped marshmallow fluff. Beneath it was a syrupy, warm caramel, as dark as the night is long. Where the bitterness of the burnt sugar caramel ended and the dark chocolate began, I could not tell. One disappeared into the other, and reappeared with each bite. The slight wateriness of the milk ice cream intensified the flavors even more.** I can’t imagine eating better than this.
Service here is really much better than it needs to be. It’s not fancy, mind you, but it’s immensely gratifying. Emma and the staff left no thought unturned, no wish unmet.
It’s rare that a restaurant exceeds expectations twice, especially after it has been lionized indulgently in the mind’s eye. In my next post, you’ll see how The Sportsman exceeded my expectations thrice.
Seasalter Whitstable Kent CT5 4BP
The United Kingdom
+44 01227 273370
* The next day, Harris showed me how he made the warm chocolate mousse. He brought heavy cream to the boil and stirred in some dark chocolate to melt. After whisking in some egg whites, he transferred the mousse base into a siphon canister and charged it with a CO2 cartridge. The canister went into a water bath held at 64 degrees Celsius to pasteurize the egg.
** Water is a magnificent amplifier of flavors, isn’t it?