Have you ever craved the kind of eatery that is 100% proper pub – together with real ale and punters propping up the bar – while also serving restaurant-level food in an unfussy and informal way? The Sportsman is it. To this point, I had only held The Inn at Whitewell in such high regard. More, my visit to The Sportsman extended my almost unbelievable run of form in eating-out terms, with 12:51, Cora Pearl, and Kym’s before it. Like a gambler on a streak, I can’t seem to err at the moment.
Be prepared for a longish, unexciting drive involving the M2 unless you do happen to live in north Kent. And Seasalter itself cannot be said to be a cultural centre or otherwise teeming with activity. The coast on a greyish day always has a kind of listless, post-apocalyptic feel about it. Happily, the interior of The Sportsman is full of life and the use of cream and toffee colours on woodwork creates a calming kind of warmth.
Blackboards are chalked up with the day’s offerings, as well as the wine list. An all-female staff across different generations is attentive. The appearance on the pumps of a good local ale was most welcome and kept very nicely indeed. Light froth rose in the pint glass as the pub’s matriarch levered the tawny, malty beer up from the cask.
There’s something old-fashioned about The Sportsman; the coastal context and the big, chunky Victorian building. And yet the menu is positively modern. I kicked off with slip sole fried in smoked and salted butter – a simple, delightfully light dish that exhibited the fish’s flavours, complemented nicely by the savoury tones of the butter. White flesh pulled from the bone with absolute ease. In being not heavy, the starter course set me up for the main, avoiding sluggishness on the one hand and hungry disappointment on the other.
What was to become the superstar dish arrived: roast chicken in a deliciously yellow, truffle cream sauce, with morels. How I love morels! Slightly puckered and fibrous, they are (when executed well) perfect when added to a sauce or scattered across meat. As to the cream sauce – a masterpiece of an opaque bath of goodness to soak into the chicken. I detected vin jaune in the sauce’s making, which no doubt contributed to its rich, tallow colour. The chicken likewise had been cooked lovingly. Faultless. And yet so simple. What is there, really, to a roast chicken dish? Lacking the obvious glamour of a beef short-rib or duck confit, this was nonetheless a dish truly delivered upon by the kitchen and which bore almighty flavours.
I needed a sweet fix after a heady, aromatic main course and chose, it turned out, extremely well in ordering the lemon tart with meringue ice cream. The lemon centre had a sort of pastel de nata quality to it; its firmness conferring a cleanly cut slice that looked stunning on the plate. In all: three quality courses of food in surroundings I’d gladly idle in for hours.
Having clocked the superior-looking coffee machine, I ended on a black Americano that capped the meal as I hoped it might.
A long drive will generally face the visitor (unless part of a seaside stay at nearby Whitstable) but is certainly worth the effort. It is rare for me to find no fault in any of the food, service or décor. The many awards displayed around The Sportsman’s bar are clearly justified and, under further Michelin scrutiny, an extra star must surely be in contemplation.
by Cristian Ley