Money. It’s an evocative word, isn’t it? It brings all sorts of emotions to the fore – desire, greed, envy, happiness, satisfaction, peace. A simple £1 coin handed to a child for an ice cream at a passing truck makes all the world’s wrongs right. A loss of a job and, therefore, an income can see a person slip into desperation and woe.
What’s also interesting about money is how different people choose to spend it. No matter what your economic outlook or bank balance displays, you have your thing. The thing on which you’re happy to spend your money. It may be a car, property, your book collection, a new sound system, presents for others, charity, furniture, nights out or even your pets. But whatever it is, you have your thing. And so do I.
My thing is food. Well holidays and food, but mostly food. After all, most of what I do on holiday is eat so they fall into the same category. This is not to say that I spend all of my money on fancy Michelin starred meals out, though I am happy to when the mood strikes. I also spend my money on ingredients (cheap or otherwise) to cook at home. This is also not to say that I am rolling in it. Hardly. But these things that we all have are defined by the will to find a way to pay for them. And I will always find a way to eat.
So imagine my delight to learn that a 12 course meal at The Sportsman, a restaurant I have been longing to visit for a while, was a mere £65. Of course £65 is not nothing and so “mere” might be the wrong word, but when your thingis food, you would probably have spent more. And so would have I, especially once I tasted the near perfect food on offer.
The restaurant itself is in fact a pub, situated in Seasalter, on the outskirts of Whitstable. The large wooden tables, airy space and wicker chairs create an inviting atmosphere and the perfect near-beach venue. The co-owner, Phil Harris, with his off-the-beaten-track wine suggestions and inviting sense of humour, adds a touch of local charm.
But it’s the food that makes The Sportsman shine.
Snacks of Puffed Pork Skin with Mustard and Cheese and Tomato Crackers were the perfect palette wake-me-up and send off to the last few sips of my gin and tonic.
Egg Mousse with Eel and Parsley was delicately presented next. Served in its fragile egg shell, the white foam was hiding a burst of flavours underneath. A warm egg yolk was the treasure at the end of the hunt and wrapped the smoky eel pieces and punchy green sauce in its rich orangey ooze.
Oysters two ways were next. One topped with homemade chorizo, the smell of which was so strong and vibrant, that even before it was placed in front of me, I wondered what meaty goodness I was about to be served. The other oyster was topped with a rhubarb granita and crystallised seaweed. I had to take my obligatory photos quickly as the granita began to melt. It was a curious sensation – warm and icy cold, sea-salty and earthy sweet. Not necessarily one I would emulate, but one I am definitely glad I tried.
Crab with Hollandaise and Carrots came served in an unassuming glass tumbler. This was a highlight for me. The crab, so delicate and sweet, was coated in a barely-there hollandaise. I was worried it might overpower the flesh, but it just served to enhance its flavour. And the carrots (which I admit, I wondered about) added a crunch and an earthiness, creating an unexpected layer to an unassumingly simple masterpiece.
I knew that I would see beetroot on The Sportsman’s menu and, low and behold, I did. In the form of Salt Baked Beetroot with Stewed Blackberries and Fresh Cheese. You can’t fault a beetroot dish in its beauty. So shockingly purple. Add blackberries and you’ve pretty much got a picture for your wall. The only thing is, it tasted like dessert. Honestly. If the meal had ended on this course, I would not have been confused or even unhappy. It was a bit like a beetroot cheesecake deconstructed. Except that The Sportsman is way too good and way too simple to ever deconstruct anything. Thank god.
Slip Sole Grilled on Seaweed Butter was the second masterpiece of the night. A fillet of sole served on its lonesome on a big white platter in the most striking and exciting way I’ve ever seen. The sole, coated in flecks of green, pulled easily away from its bone and the seaweed added a hit of umami that enhanced the fish flavour. Simple perfection.
If that wasn’t enough, another masterpiece followed suit. Brill braised in Vin Jaune with Smoked Pork and Runner Beans tasted like the very best Bird’s Eye Frozen Cod in Butter Sauce you’ll ever experience. Which I mean as the highest form of a compliment. I used to love that stuff. This was a million times better but harped back to the simple comforts of that microwave meal. The runner beans, crunchy and sweet, were the icing on the cake. Bird’s Eye should take note.
Lamb Shoulder Croquettes and Mint Sauce were basically like chicken nuggets with the amp turned massively high. A crunchy, salty outer shell encased steaming lamb which, when dunked into a mint sauce that almost tasted like a mojito, was the ultimate snack (as if a snack was required this many courses in).
Roast Lamb with Spring Onions was next (with the mint sauce left on the table from the earlier croquettes). The lamb, rare and tender, was sitting atop a meaty rich sauce, as were the large grilled onions. I had to leave the slice of lamb shoulder (sitting behind the lamb fillet) behind. It was simply too much food, but it also tasted a bit too livery for me.
Desserts were a perfect conclusion to this epic meal. They were mostly light and not over-indulgent. And as with everything The Sportsman serves, simply perfect. A Gooseberry Ice Lolly with Cake Milk was as intriguing and exciting as it sounds. The cake milk was like a thick, not-overly-sweet milkshake and I wish I had a pint of it instead of a shot glass.
Fruit Salad with Lemon Verbena Ice Cream was tangy, zingy, fresh and colourful. The petit fours at the end (Salted Chocolate and Custard & Raspberry Tarts) were just airing on the right side of gluttonous.
Remember way back at the start of this tale of twelve courses, when I was discussing the evocativeness of money? How it can lead to so many different emotions and experiences? And remember how I told you that my thing that I spend my money on is food? Well, for £65 for all that food I have just described, you really don’t even need to make food your permanent thing as it is mine (though you should). You could just save up slightly, go and try some of The Sportsman’s masterpieces and come back to thank me when you experience the same happiness I did. Which is the same sort of happiness as that kid with the £1 coin at the ice cream truck.