Monday, 5 October 2009
The Sportsman, Seasalter
I got the impression that we'd arrived for our meal at the Sportsman just as this remote spot was on the verge of transitioning from sun-baked and peaceful to windswept and desolate. It was a glorious late summer's day, a warm breeze blew in from the sea and the windows in this effectively but unsentimentally restored old boozer were all wide open. Thanks to various recent reviews the Sportsman still feels like a new find; in fact it's been here since for just over a decade - plenty of time, then, to hone their interior design skills and carefully managed hospitality. We took our seats at a huge rustic table decorated with humorously shaped vegetables, and waited for the show to begin.
Like the devil-may-care, adventurous foodies we are, we asked head honcho Stephen Harris to just serve us a tasting menu of whatever he saw fit. The Sportsman prides itself on serving local, seasonal produce - and when they say local, they really mean it. The salt is from the sea, about 20 steps away, what veg they can't grow in their own gardens is from a farm about 2 minutes up the road, and it's a little unnerving to be eating a perfectly cooked, juicy rack of lamb whilst simultaneously watching its live cousins gambolling in the field over the road. Well, at first perhaps - I soon got over it.
Our first course was a native oyster each (first of the season apparently - they weren't on the chalkboard menu put up for the other punters) with a tiny, spicy button of fried chorizo on top. I don't normally like anything other than a shallot vinaigrette with my oysters, but this was really nice, crunchy for a texture contrast and with a little spicy kick to liven up the briny flesh of the mollusc.
After gobbling down the oysters, a little stone tray of pork scratchings and pickled herrings arrived. The scratchings were mainly crispy but with the odd lovely bit of gooey flesh. They weren't as salty as I was expecting, and were even slightly sweet, but were delicious nonetheless. And the herring came as a little canapé, on a cocktail stick with rye bread, cream cheese and gooseberry jelly. Great to see gooseberry coming back into fashion, and it was a perfect compliment to this fish.
These bijou bowls of poached oysters, Jersey cream and gooseberry granita were delicate and fresh and an interesting flavour combination I've not seen elsewhere. In fact you don't really see many cooked oyster dishes anywhere, which is a shame because these were very tasty.
Slip sole (kind of a small subspecies of sole) poached in seaweed butter was an absolute triumph. I'm a huge sole fan, and the meaty, firm flesh of this little fish was cooked to absolute perfection. Overcooked sole is an absolute disaster (see The Bolingbroke), but it's a real mark of the skill in this kitchen that they can serve up such a (relatively) small cut of flatfish and get every inch of it just right. All of our plates were licked clean to the bone.
The next seafood dish, a crab risotto, was probably the best risotto I've ever eaten in my life. It wasn't just the superbly seasoned mixture, the confidently straightforward presentation or the perfectly-judged portion size. It wasn't even the overwhelmingly intense "crabbiness" of the aroma that seemed to fill the room the moment the bowl was placed down. No, what most impressed me was the way they had used the brown meat to make the rice mixture - the risotto itself - and topped it with a generous portion of the sweet white meat on top. So we had a brown-meat mixture topped with white-meat, cleverly and knowingly recreating a dressed crab in the form of a risotto. This was a multi-Michelin-starred dish masquerading as a gastropub starter, and it was brilliant.
I don't know if it was just that I'd chomped my way through some of the world's finest Iberico ham just a couple of days before at Brindisa's Ham School (more on that to come) - in fact I'm sure it was just that - but I was slightly underwhelmed by the Sportsman's home-cured ham. Quite dry and very salty, it was by their own admission just a way of using up legs of local pork that they couldn't sell for the Sunday roasts, so I probably shouldn't be too harsh. Plus I ate it all. There's always room in the world for more ham product, and you have to admire their thrifty, not to mention environmentally sound, attitude.
This handsome little fillet of tasty turbot sat on top of a stack of boiled greens and was surrounded by a fantastic rich broth of herring roe - the kind you can buy in Tesco's as 'Avruga' or fake caviar. The flavours were strong and satisfying, the meaty turbot sitting perfectly with the salty roe, and it added up to yet another near-perfect dish. We were on a roll.
A couple of fried lamb breast slices in breadcrumbs with a little minty dip were perfectly pleasant, but just served to whet our appetite for the lamb course proper - rack and slow-cooked shoulder with home-grown green beans. The meat on the rack was so tender it pulled off the bone with the barest amount of effort, and the shoulder was crunchy on top and moist within, all you could wish for. It was a deceptively simple preparation that showed off the superb ingredients to their fullest, and was a hit with everyone on our table.
First of the desserts was a little cup of something called 'cake milk' and a lollipop of blackberry granita. It was great to have such a strong hit of blackberry and such a creamy homemade custard, and even this tiny amuse was still impressive.
Apple parfait with caramel, blackberry sorbet and hazelnuts was, I'm afraid, the only dish that really didn't do much for me. It wasn't just that the hazelnuts were a bit soggy (they perhaps needed roasting longer, or at all) or that the blackberry sorbet was very similar to the previous dish. The parfait itself was a strange unpleasantly lumpy texture and didn't have a good enough flavour to overcome this disadvantage - it seemed a bit bitter.
Fortunately the Sportsman didn't end the desserts on a duff note. What arrived next was an impressive tray of five different desserts. From right to left, we have what I think was a rhubarb sorbet with a hilarious dose of popping candy, a chocolate mousse, an absolutely wonderful sharp lemon and raspberry tart, a caramelised plum, and a little block of sponge cake soaked in some kind of subtle walnut liqueur.
It wasn't just the food on the plates that impressed about the Sportsman, however. The wine list, for example, contained such ludicrously low mark-ups that Stephen quietly explained to us that some of the bottles even made them a small loss. We guzzled our way through two bottles of a crisp dry Sauvignon Blanc "Sancerre Clos des Bouffants Domaine Roger Nevau" which according to a quick Google costs £15 retail and for which we paid around £21. This went very well with the oysters and seafood dishes. Similarly, a Bordeaux, "Chateau Forcas Dumont 2003" was barely a 50% markup on retail and its rich, fruity notes went superbly with the lamb dishes. House bread was an outstanding achievement too, with a near-perfect sourdough, a crispy rosemary foccacia and a dense, malty soda bread served with home-churned sea-salted butter. I don't think I've had a better bread selection anywhere in the UK except perhaps the Harwood Arms.
But what was most impressive about the Sportsman, aside from their attention to detail, generosity of spirit and effortlessly charming service, is the fact that at its heart, it's still just a local pub that happens to serve incredible food. Throughout our meal various tired hikers popped in with their rucksacks and sandy boots to down a quick pint of Shepherd's Neame and be on their way. There's a dartboard on the way to the gents, a terrace for drinks if you're not eating, and I don't care how used you are to your individual hand towels and Molton Brown soap, it's hard not to be charmed by the rickety cubicles and push-button hand dryer from its days as a run-down and isolated boozer. The contrast was heartwarmingly evident.
On the journey home that evening, a few spots of rain cooled the air and heralded the start of autumn. I'm not worried for the Sportsman, of course - it's lasted ten years and will last many more, drawing eager punters from near and far. The fact that anyone would make a special journey out to what must be a desperately harsh location once winter has arrived is testament to just how good it is. But it's hard not to just feel a little sad that I've probably eaten my last blackberry granita of 2009. Summer, then. How was it for you? Here's to next year.