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Jan 18, 2009 09:57 AM

[Seasalter] The Sportsman -- December 2008 report

Really a special place. My write-up is below, and the pictures are here:

The Michelin guide characterizes its two-star restaurants as “worth a detour” and three-stars as “worth a special journey.” But as the five of us tumbled out of the packed car one by one, I realized we had collectively traveled over 50 hours to get to The Sportsman. I’d say that’s a special journey. And it was absolutely worth it.

The drive out to Seasalter from London takes only an hour and a half if the traffic and weather are on your side. They are not — December in England sucks. Or maybe the whole year sucks, and I’ve just not had a large enough sample set. Anyway, on this particular day it was rainy, teeth-chatteringly cold and the sky was so dark I wasn’t sure whether it was nighttime or if the Michelin gods were angry with us for making a “special journey” for a restaurant they’ve deemed worthy of just one star.

But in fact, in was lunchtime, and we had arrived a good hour early. Freezing and pathetic-looking, we sheepishly knocked on the front door of this unassuming little pub in the middle of nowhere. An angel called Emma came to greet us. She led us to a table near the fireplace, poured us some tea, and we began to thaw. Conversation drifted to nothing but restaurants for the next hour. My brother, the lone non-food-obsessed man among the five of us, was thrilled when it actually came time for us to move to another table and eat.

Deep down, I think he knew the food talk would continue, poor bastard. But he quickly found consolation in a few canapés, the first of which was Pickled herring, Bramley apple jam, horseradish & soda bread. Being half Polish, I’m pretty sure I’m supposed to love herring. I don’t. Horseradish, either. But the sweet apple jam and crumbly soda bread made this a happy first bite, even though it was quickly upstaged by the second: Rendered bacon fat, butter & buttermilk soda bread. Rendered bacon fat and butter… if loving that is wrong, then I don’t wanna be right.

More porcine snacks came our way with the Pork scratchings & grainy mustard. I love the British name for this treat, and I love any Brit kind enough to serve it to me. It’s just deep-fried pork skin, that glorious textural feat that is fatty, crispy, and gelatinous at once. When things this tasty are served family-style, I’ve found that minimizing conversation and maximizing my proximity to the plate is the best way to go. You can always make new friends later in life. Joyous pork-filled moments are fleeting.

Presented as a course in and of itself (and rightfully so) was the Focaccia & buttermilk soda bread, local house-churned butter & sel gris. The focaccia was thick and fluffy, slicked with olive oil and littered with plenty of rosemary and red onion. The soda bread was sweet, crumbly, and nutty due to the abundance of oats in it. The butter was, simply put, out of this world. I may or may not have cried when we finished all the bread (and of course, all the butter with it). But Emma, saint that she is, brought more and left it there the rest of the meal.

You never really know where the snacks stop and the actual courses start, but we played it safe and got started on the wine anyway. Our first bottle – Domaine Leflaive 2006 Borgogne Blanc – led us remarkably well through the first several dishes, starting with the Fried rock oyster & lardo. Now, in my heart of hearts, I know if you wrap just about anything with pork fat, deep-fry it, and stick a toothpick in it, you can call it pub food. But this town is known for fine oysters, and I’m pretty sure the lardo came from about a mile away. This is Seasalter pub food. Welcome to The Sportsman.

We all agreed that the previous bite was tasty, but my brother saw the Rock oyster & homemade chorizo as more of a gastroenterological risk than an edible specimen. He choked down his raw bivalve with a grimace, while the rest of us slurped the shells clean with delight. The oyster was plump and fresh, and the coarse house-made chorizo was well-spiced on its own, but unfortunately I thought the salt and paprika in the sausage drowned out the subtle flavor of the oyster.

Chicken liver pâté, button mushrooms & shaved Parmesan was a three-star dish walking around at home in its pajamas — unfussy and comfortable. At Pascal Barbot’s l’Astrance in Paris, I’ve seen liver and raw mushroom working in tandem before. I’d call that dish a masterpiece, and apparently so would Chef Stephen Harris. His nod to Barbot (not coincidentally, his favorite chef on the planet) was more mousse than pâté. Dense, rich, and creamy on the tongue, the complex sweetness of Sauternes lingered seductively after each mouthful. The mushrooms and parmesan added earthy and nutty undertones.

We splashed around again in the nearby waters with a Local scallop & house-made seaweed butter. This is basically the same simple presentation I’ve had before at L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, only this one was actually good. The scallop had no opacity in the center, so the texture was a bit firmer than I would have liked. But it tasted fresh and sweet, and Harris’ seaweed butter is the best I’ve had.

The straightforward Scallop carpaccio & smoked brill roe might have been my favorite dish of the day. Scallop, brill roe, wood sorrel, and salt — I counted just four ingredients, and looking out the window by our table, I could see the sources of all four of them. There’s an immediacy to Chef Harris’ cuisine that is absolutely impossible not to respect. And the beautiful fresh sweetness of the scallop with the smoky roe and the lemony wood sorrel was impossible not to love.

Nothing wasted – that was Stephen Harris’ goal in curing his own Seasalter hams. He was already using nearly every other part of the pigs he got from nearby Monkshill Farm, and surely there could be no higher calling for the legs that remained. So they began feeding the pigs with leftovers from the kitchen and windfall apples. After a shower of grey salt from Guerande and fourteen months to hang out, here were hams from two different breeds for us to enjoy — one with a lighter color that left an almost-floral sweetness as it dissolved on my tongue like Serrano; and the other, a dark, waxy, saltier, full-flavored ham that brought jamón Ibérico to mind.

The next dish was written on the blackboard in two words – Crab risotto. But even that description seemed superfluous, as the rice was merely the vehicle of an expression of the purest, most concentrated crab flavor imaginable. (To quote, shamefully, from Disney’s Aladdin: “Phenomenal cosmic power… itty bitty living space.”) Other than the ever-so-slightly overcooked rice, this was a dish beyond reproach. It was rich, sweet, and, in my mind, truly ingredient-defining. To taste this risotto was to know exactly what crab tastes like.

While we were happily guzzling a bottle of red – Chambolle Musigny, Domaine Bruno Clair “Les Veroilles” 2002 – somebody must have been fishing. An announcement had come earlier in the meal: “They’ve just caught a turbot nearby, and you’ll be eating it soon.” Wait, what?! I’ve apparently been going to the wrong restaurants all my life, because this sort of thing has never happened to me. Right then and there I began to devise a plan to somehow import this place and everyone in it back to the US with me, because it’s basically Utopia.

Friends more knowledgeable on the subject than I told me turbot benefits from a few days out of the water before cooking. I replied that if they really needed some time to sort out their emotions involved with making that fish go gentle into that good night, they could certainly just pass their servings of Roast turbot with a smoked herring sauce over to me. It wasn’t the firm flesh of the gloriously fat fish fillet, the vibrant green sprout tops, or the smoky, creamy, strikingly metallic-colored Avruga caviar sauce that sparked my sudden generosity. I was just trying to be a good friend. Really.

Two oyster dishes, two scallop dishes, now two lamb dishes — the first of which was Fried Monkshill Farm lamb belly & mint sauce. ”I’ll have two of everything on the menu” would apparently be a good ordering strategy here. This was just absurdly tasty. It was so simple that it wowed. Just breaded and fried lamb belly, fatty, meaty, and crispy in every bite, to be dipped into an utterly addictive sweet mint sauce that I’m pretty sure consisted of nothing more than a simple syrup packed with the fresh herb.

We also had Roast Monkshill Farm lamb loin & braised shoulder, served with bread sauce, purple brussels sprouts, and lamb jus. The shoulder was like a meat layer cake — every stratum had a different consistency. The pleasantly crispy and chewy skin gave way to melting fat and collagen, which in turn moistened the tender, stringy (in a good way) strands of meat packed together below. The loin was firm and flavorful. The sprouts, a nice touch of greenery in an otherwise very rich dish.

Okay, now this was just getting out of hand. Even the desserts here are memorable?! This is a pub, people! Won’t somebody please start acting like it? I mean, take the Strawberry ice lolly with cake milk, for example. Imagine the audacity to serve something so flavorful and yet so playful at the same time. Cake milk is exactly what it sounds like: milk thickened with delicious buttery cake crumbs. You dip the popsicle (which was lovely on its own, by the way) into the cake milk, eat, and repeat.

Then came a tall wedge of a Dark chocolate tart & tangerine ice cream. The chocolate filling was soft like room-temperature butter, and it seemed to stand in defiance of gravity through sheer stubbornness. The flavor was so dense, rich, and intense — bittersweet, incarnate. In fact, my only criticism (and it’s a slight one) was that to my taste, the chocolate and the slightly bitter ice cream together created a mouthful that was nearly acrid.

We ended with a wonderful Dessert trio. Yes, we were still eating in a pub(!)… There was a miniature Gypsy tart, with a deliciously sweet condensed milk and brown sugar filling, and a Jasmine tea junket (milk pudding) with breakfast crunch & rosehip syrup. Finally, some green apple sorbet with yogurt & “space dust”. Space dust sounded like a narcotic that might make me even more blissful than I already was, but that’s just what the Brits call Pop Rocks. It was used here to great effect, making the tartness of the sorbet dance around on your tongue.

I spoke earlier of the immediacy of Stephen Harris’ food. It has a sense of place and time. It’s right here in Seasalter, right now. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. This guy lives, breathes, and cooks with the land and the sea around him. He belongs there. And after eating his food, you feel like you do, too. I’m almost ashamed to tell you how little we paid for this remarkable meal — just £55 a head before wine, if you’ll believe that. I regretted having made dinner reservations elsewhere that evening. And I regret now that I live about 5,400 miles away from this incredibly special place.

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  1. my gf + i are going here for the tasting menu next month, man i cant wait

    2 Replies
    1. re: t_g

      You are in for a serious treat.

      1. re: food.snob

        this meal was amazing. such a great place. if you live in london you shld definitely take a day trip out there.

    2. Great write up, thanks.

      Could you or foodsnob comment on the 'normal' menu - I ask because the tasting menu isn't available on Saturday

      7 Replies
      1. re: mr_gimlet

        Unfortunately, I am not familiar with it.
        However, on the day we went this was the daily menu, if it helps:

        I am pretty certain anyway that it changes day to day depending on what is at the market/fisherman has caught.

        1. re: mr_gimlet

          Thank you. If you check out the food.snob's link below or look at the third picture I included in my review, you'll see that we had a few things that were either taken directly from the daily menu, or just modified slightly. I would imagine that you cannot go wrong there, anyway. A trusted friend tells me the lemon tart is not to be missed for dessert, by the way.
          All that said, I know they don't do the tasting menu on Saturday, but the chef is a nice guy and a major foodie. I would recommend just calling him in advance and telling him your situation, that Saturday is the only day you can go. I''d say there's a very good chance that he would be accommodating and put something special together for you.

          1. re: tupac17616

            I've been meaning to get to the Sportsman for a while now - does anyone know of anywhere decent to stay nearby? We live in London so although it's only an hour or so drive, one of us would have to pull the short straw and not drink, which I'm afraid, just isn't an option!

            1. re: pj26

              we stayed at the hotel continental which is in whitstable, you can then get a £7 taxi ride to the sportsman.

              1. re: t_g

                Thanks! Now I have no excuse not to go

              2. re: pj26

                They have a list of accommodation on their web site.

                1. re: pj26

                  I think Broadstairs is another nice town in that area. I've not yet gotten to that part of the coast, but we've been wanting to get to Seasalter for awhile. Maybe this is the year.

            2. Went here last weekend for Saturday lunch. Outstanding is my basic summary, including a very well kept porter that meant I didn't need to hit the wine list. Between us we did native oysters, pacifics with chorizo, a slip sole with butter, cod with parsley sauce, chicken breast with truffle cream sauce, chocolate souffle thing and rhubarb sorbet. The chicken was fantastic, desserts were quite humorous (salty peanuts in the chocolate, space dust hidden in my sorbet).

              Mix of clientele - some conspicuous affluence, a couple with a small child, some walkers in boots etc and some rather loud people on the table next to. Everyone welcome would be their catch-cry I suspect. Only thing that was rigid was the dining slot you booked, if you are running late then ring ahead or it could get unpleasant.

              Whistable accommodation was tending to more expensive, but very nice, and you couldn't walk to Seasalter easily, but you could walk into town. We booked one of the palces the Sportsamn had on their website. I would defininitely go back, both to eat and to stay in Whitstable.

              11 Replies
              1. re: mr_gimlet

                Does anyone know if it is it possible to get down to Whitstable by train at all so you could day trip to the Sportsman without having to spend a night?

                1. re: Gourmet Chick

                  Yes, easy - it's 1.20 from Victoria, every half hour through the day and every hour in the evening. You'd need a short taxi ride to Seasalter from Whiststable, it isn't very far but probably too far to walk. You could walk back after lunch.

                  Evening would eb a bit tight - last train 1030ish

                  1. re: mr_gimlet

                    Glad to hear you made it, Mr. Gimlet!
                    Knew you would like it, everyone does.... ;)

                2. re: mr_gimlet

                  Very glad you enjoyed your meal, mr_gimlet, and thanks for reporting on the whole experience, including the lodging, etc. I'm sending a few Italian friends of mine to the Sportsman very soon, so this was all quite helpful. Cheers.

                  1. re: tupac17616

                    We had lunch there today, and it really did live up to our expectations. Everything is done with great care and thoroughness... service is unrushed (even on a busy, summer Saturday) and professional. It was pretty toasty in Seasalter today, so we were pleased to be there early and get a table right by an open window.

                    Mr. Zuriga is not a big lunch eater, so it was up to me to order as many things as I could. I liked that the menu isn't massive and each dish sounded delicious. It was hard to decide what to eat. My husband had a crab risotto - mostly crab and well cooked rice. It was excellent. I had a crispy duck (and it was VERY crispy) served with a tomato, chili salsa (topped with a cold cream), wonderful roast potatoes, and a highly seasoned warm, shredded cabbage. The duck was so moist and a very large portion - probably ruined me now for any other duck I'll ever eat.

                    Still a bit peckish, we also had an order of their assorted breads served with picholines, the only olives I really like but rarely eat. The foccacio was superb as were the other two varieties. They are all baked in-house, which came as no surprise.

                    I couldn't resist the chocolate mousse cake (fantastic) for dessert - served with raspberries and Jersey cream.

                    I'm sure we'll be back there again - only a 75 minute drive from our house and we also walked on the beach and enjoyed the English summer and salt air.

                    1. re: zuriga1

                      Excellent, we have dinner booked in early August, I am really looking forward to it; a last UK meal before we head out to eat our way across Europe.

                      It does seem to be a pretty hot reservation as it was nearly full for the night we wanted, which is 6 weeks away. Best advice is to book early.

                      1. re: PhilD

                        I booked this about 3 weeks ago, Phil, but according to the person I spoke with, it was the last of the reservations, and we had to take 12:45 instead of 1... no big deal at all. I'm glad to hear you'll be trying it, too, and I look forward to reading what you think.

                        The building itself (especially outside) is a bit grotty and could use a lick of paint. Maybe the sea air does that to a structure. The chef seems to take great care with the little touches. With coffee, my husband was brought two small pieces of chocolate (it could have been the mousse cake). They were served on a chilled marble slab. I think that speaks to their 'caring.'

                        Your trip sounds wonderful. Paris, too? I will be eating my way across Minneapolis in late August and Hannover in September. :-)

                        1. re: zuriga1

                          I just sent this thread (plus Food Snob's beautifully crafted review) to my boyfriend as an extremely unsubtle hint and he has booked us in for the tasting menu for my birthday next month. I may have to marry him...Or rather not, if I get more lovely dinners for free as part of the courtship ;)

                          We're going to make a mini break of it, so what's the current verdict on other Whitstable places? I used to go to the Royal Native Oyster Stores years ago before Whitstable went mental. Is it still good? Anywhere else? If we go down to the Granville in Canterbury will that be too similar to the Sportsmans?

                          1. re: helen b

                            Head to Wheelers in Whitstable. It's quite a strange little place - you can either sit at the bar and eat oysters, potted shrimps, mussels etc or book in at the restaurant. It's a small room (about 5 tables) out the back which kind of feels like someone's front room - it's a family run business so it very well could be! Staff are lovely and rather eccentric and the food (fresh fish and seafood) is a very pleasant surprise - not what you would expect when you sit down and order - in a good way. As an added bonus it's BYO - there's an Oddbins right across the road.

                            1. re: helen b

                              Luckily, pj26 seems to know Whitstable, which I (a Yank) do not. Despite my husband's sister living very close to the coast, this was my first time up there. I'm glad to hear you'll be having the Sportsman 'experience.' The chocolate mousse cake was really, really good so I hope that's part of the tasting.

                              I definitely think you should not rush into marriage. Get as many good dinners during the courtship as possible! Maybe you can even get a few lovely holidays, too. :-)

                              1. re: zuriga1

                                I like your thinking, especially if I can also include shoes in the bargain ;)

                  2. The original comment has been removed
                    1. IMO if you have not tried, or don't plan to try The Sportsman you are really not that serious about food. This should be on everyones list of "must try" UK restaurants. We ate there on Saturday when only the ALC is available and it was superb, fantastic produce, simply cooked, with classic british dishes i.e. the lamb and mint sauce.