TravelNoise: The Sportsman, Whitstable
Whitstable, 30th July, 2016. The tide is out and we’re having a post-prandial stroll on the beach. There’s a soundstage on the harbour and a teenage band playing on the South Quay. My new Topsiders sink into seabed sludge to a jagged mash-up of Donna Summer from one and Arctic Monkeys from the other. Ruddy lager drinkers pack the sea wall. I’m sure I saw Pinkie Brown and Ida Arnold roar down the High Street earlier in a souped-up Vauxhall Astra.
The Sportsman, Seasalter, three hours earlier. Five of us, fresh off the London train, pile out of a taxi and into this self-styled grotty run-down boozer off the old coastal road. And into the best restaurant in Britain. The Sportsman took first place at the National Restaurant Awards in June. No wonder: it’s heaven for the daytripper in search of produce and cooking as level and no-nonsense as the Thames Estuary skyline.
We five are Champagne lefties so we toast my birthday with Taittinger. It seems the thing to do in a space that makes a blow-out feel pared-back. Tables are spaciously arrayed. Everything’s in bare wood or bleached white paint. The whole place is flooded with pale estuary daylight. Here chef-owner Stephen Harris makes beautiful dishes from produce he says you can see from those wide windows.
On a wooden board: dark, treacly soda bread; ripe sourdough; onion focaccia in a league of its own. Alongside: fine butter with sea salt crystallised in-house. Whitstable Oysters to start, of course, each perfectly briny. To my left: Gin Cured Salmon with Blackcurrants, Cucumber and Raw Crème Fraîche. Exquisite, simple flavours, elegant to the palate and eye – a hint of pickle in the cucumber, the blackcurrants untouched. To my right: Carrot, Burrata and Burnt Onion. No elegance here. A split, roast carrot and a blackened scallion on rags of creamiest buffalo curds gave two fingers to fuss and let their flavour do the talking.
Thornback Ray, Brown Butter, Cockles and Sherry Vinegar Dressing was simply best in class: a faultless ray wing and cockles, their amber butter and dressing offsetting sweet and sharp with great expertise. And there was Roast Saddle of Lamb with Mint Sauce, not to mention the crispest roast potatoes and a sauce of untold depth. On the plate, a roast with gravy. In the eating, a world away.
Junket makes me think of Elizabethan kitchens; all spices and perfumes. If Elizabeth I ever took Robert Dudley to her boudoir, she would surely have ordered The Sportman’s Jasmine Tea Junket with Kentish Cherries for their afternoon delight. Cherries were warmed just enough that their flavours veritably sang of themselves alongside their fragrant milk pudding. A Raspberry Soufflé with Cream Cheese Ice Cream, was summer risen high, even-textured and creamily unctuous with a spoonful of ice cream melted in at the waitress’ behest.
Ostensibly uncomplicated, The Sportsman and its food are masterfully crafted. Service is pub not formal. The wine list is an array of classy safe bets, largely old-world. We ate à la carte: starters come in below £10 and mains around the £20 mark. But doubtless the tasting menus – at £65 or a short daily menu at £45 – show the kitchen at its peak.
Back into the taxi we piled to misplace our sense of humour in the Whitstable throng. The Sportsman isn’t just brilliant: it’s also clever. It’s what we wanted Whitstable to be. When we next need to commune with the Kentish coast’s terroir without spoiling our city shoes, back we’ll go for the full tasting menu shebang.
Address: Faversham Road, Seasalter, Whitstable, Kent, CT5 4BP
Telephone Number: 01227 273370