Posted on Thursday, 18th June 2009
I found it mildly amusing to read what had been written on the ‘location tab’ of The Sportsman’s website, a one Michelin starred gastropub situated in Kent. It goes something like this:
“A common theme in many write-ups and reviews is that The Sportsman is remote, bleak and a bit of a dump. Equally, many regulars find this point of view shocking as they love to arrive early, go for a walk on the beach and then have lunch or dinner.”
I suppose the view of the former group was not easily dispelled for me, seeing as the day of our visit was a rainy, bleak day in June. Who would have believed it was summer?! And the long journey from London (a tube ride to Victoria Station, a 1½ hour train ride to Faversham, and taxi from Faversham to The Sportsman) further confirmed the assertion of remoteness.
But I wasn’t interested in its surroundings. Growing up in Australia provided me with a different perspective on beaches anyway, and many years in London has also taught me to be prepared for dreary, wet, summer days. And as my biggest priority is always the food, why grumble about the location?
Despite what may have been written about the location, the whitewashed gastropub holds the secret to a charming interior. It’s light and airy, and the look is colonial. The bar dominates the centre of the restaurant, with large wooden tables dotted around it. The feel of the place is easy and relaxed.
The man behind The Sportsman is Stephen Harris, an ex-City worker. Eating his way around some of the more expensive restaurants in London made him realise that certain people might be put off by both the cost and formality of fine dining. And thus, he opened The Sportsman in 1999, where the philosophy behind it was that the food would match the quality and standards of the best restaurants, but which would also be accessible to all with its reasonable pricing and relaxed ambience.
We came for the tasting menu which is very reasonably priced at £55. First up was an amuse bouche of baked oyster with gooseberry granite. This was delicious – the oyster was meaty and succulent, and the delicate, cold sweetness of the gooseberry provided a lovely contrast to the savoury oyster.
More amuse bouches followed of pork scratchings, to be dipped in wholegrain mustard, and pickled herring. The pork scratchings were crunchy and wonderfully salty on the outside and slightly soft at the centre. So good were they that we asked for second helpings. The pickled herring was pleasant.
A soup course called ‘Rockpool’ was next. This consisted of a broth made from the bones of a turbot which had come in the day before, oysters, clams, crab, samphire and hand picked herbs. Tasting of the sea, this dish was exquisite, and perhaps one of the finest I have had this year. The seafood was fresh and flavoursome. The broth was light on the palate while maintaining a real depth of flavour. It was also very complex, occasionally yielding to very slight, almost undetectable bursts of aniseed (liquorice and star anise) and lemon verbena.
A crab risotto was resoundingly delicious. Fresh crab was perched on top of the risotto, which had been cooked from a stock made from the brown crab meat. There was no end of flavour to this dish which lingered on the palate after each bite.
A little story accompanies the Seasalter ham (cured December 2007) that we had next. Back in 2004, The Sportsman was looking for ways to make use of the entire pig without letting any part of it go to waste. And the result was this home cured ham. Buried in salt for two weeks, it is then hung for a year and a half. The result is a flavoursome ham with a slightly chewy, less fatty texture than that of Parma ham.
From the same turbot, the bones of which had been used for the ‘Rockpool’, a small taster bowl of smoked turbot roe (the gastropub called it turbot-masalata) was presented to us before the fish course. Like a good taramasalata, the roe was light and springy, and the delicate smokiness further accentuated the roe.
To the turbot itself, which had been braised in vin jaune and was accompanied by smoked pork. The turbot was meaty and tender, and the smokiness of the succulent pork provided a lovely contrast to the fish. The vin jaune (yellow wine) had been used to create an excellent light, creamy sauce that elevated the flavour of the turbot.
The main was a roast rack of milk-fed Monkshill farm lamb. Monkshill farm is located adjacent to The Sportsman, and supplies most of their meat. The Sportsman often visit the animals and feed them leftovers from the restaurant, thereby having a close hand in the rearing of the livestock that is supplied to them. The rack, which cut like soft butter was incredibly tender, with a milky flavour permeating the meat. The dish also came with a slow cooked shoulder, which was also very tender, and flavoursome beans picked from the garden and cabbage from a nearby farm. There was also a little side plate of lamb belly, deep fried with a delicious, thick, crunchy layer of bread crumbs and served with an aromatic sweet mint sauce.
Breads had been all home baked and included focaccia, which had a crunchy, oily crust with fresh rosemary; buttermilk soda bread, which was quite moist and had a slight lingering sweetness to it; and some tasty sourdough. Butter is churned at the gastropub using milk from Jersey cows reared locally, and the salt used at The Sportsman is also made by the gastropub.
Desserts came in the form of two rounds of little mini-tasters, with the first set being in the form of elderflowers. An elderflower posset was creamy and light, and an elderflower iced lolly dipped in cake mix worked well in complementing each other, with the cold, sweet, sharpness of the lolly juxtaposed by the denser cake mix. There was also fried elderflower which was pleasantly sweet, although I found the batter too thick, leaving this dessert tasting more of batter than elderflower.
The next set included a rhubarb sorbet, a chocolate mousse, a gooseberry posset and a raspberry tart. All were pleasant, although the pastry of the tart was perhaps not as firm or buttery as it should have been. This was also the case with the pastry on the extra lemon tart (£6.95) that we had ordered off the à la carte menu in an act of high gluttony.
For wines, we brought our own, for which a £5 cover charge is levied on each bottle. On the service – here the staff don’t fuss over you in a stuffy-kind of way. Rather it’s more about delivery with a smile and lots of warmth, and being as accommodating as they can be in every way possible. We ran them ragged with the volume of the refills of bread that we requested, and still, it was brought with a smile every time. To summarise, it was lovely and relaxed. And the food, well that was something else. Ok, I didn’t think that all the desserts were as remarkable as the mains, and the pastry could have been better. But there were some stunning dishes such as the ‘Rockpool’, and overall, I could find hardly find fault with anything I ate amongst the savoury courses.
And who could begrudge The Sportman’s philosophy of using quality, local ingredients, and cooking it with great care, passion and love. You learn all this when you talk to Stephen, who will tell you that the veg is from the farm up the road, the herbs are grown out back, the meat is from next door, and so on. Food is treated with respect, and nothing is left to go waste, and like the service, it’s unfussy. There are no great garnishes or accompaniments, no high gimmicks, just the natural flavours of the ingredients being allowed to sing through. And in both its simplicity and complexity, this was perhaps one of the loveliness meals I have had in a long time, not to mention one of the best value.
So do go. It’s worth it, irrespective of whatever journey one might have to make to get there. And don’t worry about whatever has been written about the location, for a special treat truly awaits.
The Sportsman at:
Kent CT5 4BP
Tel: +44 (0)1227 273370