Returning from Belgium, through Dover, we decided the north west could wait another day for our return and booked a night at the Whitstable Premier Inn so we could get dinner at the Sportsman. It was our third visit there.
When you drive up to the Sportsman for the first time and walk into the “conservatory” that’s reserved for drinkers, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d walked into a right dump. Later, if you need to visit the toilets, you’d be reminded of that first impression – this is probably the only Michelin starred restaurant where the bogs (and I use that word advisedly) come complete with condom vending machine.
However, in between the front and back of the place, you’re in for a treat especially if, like us, you’ve pre-ordered the tasting menu. The dining area is all stripped wood, large tables and comfy chairs. You’re going to get plates of “real food” – wonderful ingredients where chef, Stephen Harris, seemingly does very little to them to produce absolute delights. And they’re going to be served to you by a front of house team who are knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the food and who follow their craft under the watchful eye of Phil Harris.
We were last at the Sportsman in 2011 when we ate a three-courser but the year before we’d had the tasting menu. A number of dishes are unchanged, or pretty much unchanged, but it was just about a long enough gap for the food to still gather in several “wow” responses.
We had the first of the food with an aperitif, standing at the bar chatting to Phil. Pork scratchings and a mustard dip; pickled herring on a bite sized piece of sourdough. The scratchings should be legendary and possibly are.
Once at the table, a poached oyster in beurre blanc is served, then a raw oyster with chorizo. And, because this is the Sportsman, then chorizo is homemade – and it’s bloody good. There’s then bread – a brown soda, sourdough and an onion foccacia. And, yes, of course it’s homemade. As is the butter - and so is the salt that goes into it (I remember from the previous visit that they nip over the sand dunes and get a bucket of seawater which they boil down).
Bang-on for seasonality was a chilled asparagus soup, served with a one-bite asparagus and sorrel tart. Then crab and shredded carrot is mixed with a light hollandaise - a dish that might have made you think it was early summer until you looked out of the window and saw the dark clouds and high winds.
Slip sole has been on the menu both previous times we’ve been. Simply fried in seaweed butter (yep, homemade) and served “as is”. I reckon this simplicity is “essence of Stephen Harris”. It really is a dish you want to eat.
Then another fish dish which looked simple but clearly wasn’t. Braised turbot in a smoked roe sauce. Phil explained to us that this is only cooked when the turbot is in roe. And this fish, delivered the day before, was. The roe had been smoked straightaway and then the sauce made.
We’d eaten the next dish in 2010 and, in truth, I’d happily eat this as my last ever meal. A piece of long cooked deboned breast of lamb, pressed then breadcrumbed. It’s served with a dipping sauce that’s the classic mint sauce. And it’s a fab version. Mint sauce is just about the only thing that I’d help Mum with when I was a kid and I’ve been making it ever since (so, after 50 years I think I’m not too shabby at it). We asked what the secret is of the perfect balance of sweet/sour/mint – surely there was some unusual ingredient, even if it was only cider vinegar. But no, it’s standard malt vinegar and mint but the sweet does come from using a Demerara sugar syrup – now there’s something to try at home.
The mint sauce stayed on the table for the next dish – a lovely chop and braised shoulder of Monkshill lamb (my notes from 2010 reminds me that Monkshill Farm is owned by the Royal School for Deaf Children in Margate). This is lovely. Really, deeply, genuinely lovely. A little seasonal veg and a light gravy is all that was needed to decorate the plate.
And, now.....on to dessert. First up, a rhubarb ice-lolly which you dip into cake milk. Cake milk, I hear you ask. Yep, it’s milk with cake crumbs. And it’s nice. Maybe not a stunner of a dish but certainly nice.
Then strawberry ice cream (homemade, of course). Followed by a strawberry sandwich – actually a little brioche, caramelised so it’s crispy, with strawberries and cream between the slices.
And then we had coffee, which came with another four concoctions – warm chocolate mousse, a “simple” shortbread – although there would be nothing simple about a shortbread so short, a raspberry sandwich and rhubarb junket.
So, in summary, a really super evening that played to the foody in both of us. Unlike many tasting menus, where you get a sense that the chef is just trying too hard to be clever, Stephen Harris gets it right with his ingredients and his style. It really is food you want to eat.