The Sportsman

Sometimes it’s about the food.

Sometimes it’s about the people.

And sometimes you’re lucky enough and the best of both collide in one meal.

This is the story of the best pub lunch in the world. Yes, that’s right, the world.

I’d heard nothing but good things about The Sportsman, from some pretty darn trustworthy sources- like this one. The eminent Jay Rayner’s also a bit of a fan.

In 1999 Stephen Harris and his brother took over a pub in Seasalter, near the mouth of the Thames. He wasn’t a chef by trade, but he had a vision of creating somewhere connected to its environment that would create great food.

Mission accomplished.

The Sportsman is a cream pub by the sea, full of charm. You’ll find burgundy curtains on the windows and small framed pictures on the wall. On a day cold enough to scrawl your name with your finger on a windscreen, inside there’s a fire burning. The tables are wooden. The wine list and the menu are written up on a blackboard. There’s a sign outside that says they’re full for lunch, but there’s still a small crowd of locals around the bar who’ve come in search of an ale.

But perhaps the most striking thing of all is the warmth from the staff that envelops you, It’s like a hug from an honourary aunt. 

“Sit down. Relax” is what we’re first told.  So we do.  We order an ale from the bar and a bottle of wine from an obscenely well priced list of around 60 wines, with a solid assortment by the glass. The list weaves its way from Australia, to NZ, Chile, Italy, Spain, Portugal, with a good shake from France. A heartwarming bottle of Chateau Fourcas Dumont Listrac Medoc (2003) came in at just shy of 27 pounds.

You may be hurried slightly to make your order ( tables have staggered starting times to help the kitchen), but for the quality of what is to come, it’s well worth it.

Everything  at The Sportsman has a traceable relationship with the area around it.

It starts with the breadboard. The contents of which have all been made in house. There’s a warm rosemary foccacia is as soft as the innards of a doona (or duvet if you insist). There’s a soft sourdough with a resilient crust, and then there’s some dark crumbly hunks of soda bread.

Except it’s not bread. It’s a life-force. It’s got flavours of heather and ginger, spice and meal.  If hassled it crumbles like hardened brown sugar that’s pushed from a spoon. Topped with a cold hunk of salted butter it’s quite simply, one of the best things I’ve ever eaten. And occasionally, saying that, says a lot.

There’s a lot to like on the menu. It’s short and punchy and makes the best of what’s available at the time. Seafood comes from just over the wall, in the shoals and shores of the local coast. Similarly, most of the meat comes from  farms just over the hill. One major supplier is the neighbouring Monkshill Farm, which is part of the  Royal School for the Deaf. “The students are very good with the animals”  we’re told with a smile. “These have been very happy animals”. Far be it for us to not invite some out to play.

To start there’s a hearty serving of pork terrine. It’s chunky and swaddled in cabbage. With it there are strips of noisily crisp pork crackling, some seeded mustard and pickles.

For the others at the table there’s a bowl of mussel and bacon chowder, with fat strips of bacon bobbing about in a sea of salt and cream.  A serve of crab risotto could have possibly done without the extra gift  of some scrapes of shell in among the gentle beads of rice, but it didn’t stop the flavour trumpeting loudly. Roe deep, it was the colour of terra cotta tiles and had a  musky flavour of crab innards,  sweetened by  threads of meat.

Half way through the lunch what struck me most was the  lovely interplay between rustic and refined at The Sportsman. I’m not the kind of person who needs a napkin to match my dress. I find scraping the table between courses more of an indictment of my messiness than a courtesy, and I absolutely don’t need to be accompanied to the bathroom. The Sportsman may have a Michelin star, but that’s not the kind of place it is.

Here there are no tablecloths and you’re just as likely to pour your wine yourself.  And rather than obsequious or stiff, the staff choose the path of familiar and charming. They’re the sort who are as happy to take a group photo with an iphone as they are pointing you in the direction of a cheaper wine they think you’ll like better.

It’s a rustic charm that also shines in the main courses and puddings. All  the main courses we sampled trod a similar path of beautifully cooked pieces of protein (some confited in fat first, to make the most of the flavour) that were then paired with some crisp roast  or rich dauphinoise potatoes and a restrained sauce. For the pink meat from the lamb leg there was a sweet green flecked mint sauce. For the roasted chicken there was a chunky bread sauce heady with nutmeg.

 Roast Waterham Farm chicken with spiced sausage and bread sauce

The puddings also bring the  homely and comforting  elements to the fore- though it seems you have to move quickly to get hold of a serving of the local favourite of gypsy tart with jersey cream.

We were sad to miss the Kentish combination of evaporated milk, muscavado sugar and pie crust, but found solace in a cuddle of steamed sponge pudding with a fat moat of vanilla custard.  For the boys it was warm chocolate mousse with milk sorbet and a base layer of salted caramel.

Steamed sponge pudding with vanilla custard

Then in amongst all of these comforting elements there are dishes that make you push your chair back, sit up straight and close your eyes. At the beginning of the meal there were three poached rock oysters with a soft puddle of cream, pickled cucumber and a splodge of caviar. They’re served on a bed of cockle shells. It came just shy of seven pounds  for the three of them. If there was an iron chef ‘oyster’ battle and this went up against Thomas Keller’s Oysters and Pearls, I’m not sure I could safely bet who would win. Seriously. That good.

During dessert there was another silent swoon moment with a junket, lightly flavoured with jasmine tea and sprinkled with a cereal crunch and rosehip syrup. The junket has the texture of a pannacotta, without the mouth coating heft of cream. The syrup gave it a lipgloss sheen, while the jasmine tea made it soft and romantic, without feeling like you’d stumbled into your grandma’s floral nightgown drawer. All in all, restrained, elegant and textured to the hilt. A cracker of a dish.

Our lunch at The Sportsman was the final chapter in the festival of my birthday. We went with three friends, and the five of us all  piled into a rental car there and back. On the way home we chewed about, naming our highlights and digging for any quibbles. Sure, the coffee may need work. The bathrooms are a little drafty. And it can take up to two hours to get back to Central London, depending on traffic or your ability to negotiate with your GPS.

But none of those things really matter.

Sometimes  a cracker of a meal is about the food. Sometimes it’s about the people- whether it’s the warmth of your chosen company, or those you find on the floor. Luckily for us at The Sportsman, we won by taking a bet each way.

NB During the week The Sportsman also do an extraordinary looking tasting menu for the bargain price of 55 pounds each. 

We’ll be back.

The Sportsman
Faversham Road, Seasalter, Kent CT5 4BP
Tel: 01227 273 370

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{ 1 Comment }
  1. I’ve been trying to exercise and drink more tea everyday. With and these flowering teas, it’s been a breeze!

    Up til now, Jasmine Flower is my favorite!

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