The Sportsman has become one of my favourite restaurants in the world. This simple British pub by the seaside offers a unique concept, that makes me look forward to meals here with the same excitment as some of the finer 3* restaurants do. After my fantastic lunch in June, shortly before returning to Luxembourg for the summer holidays, I was ready for a return. The crossing of the channel on the way back to London at the end of those holidays seemed to mark the perfect occasion for a return visit. So, after a long drive and a lovely ride on the ferry (with less a less lovely crowd), I was ready for another great meal.
At night the place looks even more cosy and warm. The wood reflects the candles’ light beautifully and bathes the room in a most hospitable light. Not much has changed here in terms of interior design, and those great Van Gogh toilets are still there too.
Wine wise the list has not got the widest selection, but does not fail to offer some real steals and most interesting wines. We went with some Pol Roger brut to start and finish the meal, a Pouilly-Fuisse and a fantastic Chablis Grand Cru Les Preuses from William Fevre.
The first mise en bouche has not changed from last time: A piece of baked local oyster is served with gooseberry granite and a creamy sauce. The high quality of the oyster is apparent, and its iodine strength is curtailed by both the cooking process and the sweet/sour gooseberry granite. Very good.
Next up was one of the best snacks in England: The famous pork sratchings, served with mustard and a herring on soda bread, with apple jelly. The pork scratchings (from Old spot porks that are being fed apples at the moment) are delightful: Warm, crunchy, perfectly seasoned, a true delight. The herring is no worse than the scratchings, although in a completely different category. Here, freshness, acidity and the herring’s distinct flavour are the main protagonists, whilst the scratchings are a slightly richer affair. This is food, that so many English pubs could do without spending nor working much. After all, pork scratchings are an absolutely amazing thing. Outstanding, for both, although one could eat a few more of those little scratchings…
Another little snack appeared now. Angels on horseback, or deep-fried, lardo wrapped oysters. The lardo (pork fat, that is rubbed with salt and spices, then matured like ham in caves) is made by Stephen, and is absolutely great. Whitstable native oysters are, rather unique in shape (look at the shells) and taste, and do taste absolutely amazing. The combination is divine, and there is not even any overpowering saltiness here. It is perfectly balanced in every respect. The little dollop of apple sauce wakes things up a bit and gives it a little, very welcome tartness, that goes more than well with the dish. Outstanding.
Bread here is always a treat. This time, there was the classic focaccia, sourdough and soda bread. Together with Stephen’s own butter, it is quite simply outstanding. I probably have written about this already, but the crust of the focaccia (the bottom one) sees a beautiful caramelisation of the oil, that results in an absolutely outstanding texture. The sourdough was absolutely perfect too: Crunchy crust, nice, aerated centre and a very good taste. It’s a shame that many restaurants don’t manage to produce bread of that quality, but on the other hand: It is one more reason to come back for! Soda shan’t be forgotten, as it is no less well made. The butter has an incredible punch to it, that mass produced butters simply do not have. Divine. (no picture, but for those interested, look at the first post on the Sportsman).
As we came late, Stephen had to serve us one of the meat dishes a little earlier: The Local wood pigeon roasted in salt was fantastic however. Baked in a salt crust, it didn’t only retain its full aroma, but also the tenderness and moisture. Accompanied by a pigeon jus, cabbage and horseradish it presented a slightly modified version of a classic combination. I have very good memories of a Mieral pigeon, that I ate at Helmut Thieltges’ (3*) restaurant in Germany, with similar garnishes, and this one was very close to the 3* one. The incredibly concentrated pigeon flavour matched the jus and rather buttery cabbage perfectly and the horseradish gave the whole thing a little spiciness that complemented those rich, full-bodied flavours fantastically. Outstanding.
Next up was a very minimalist dish. The Slip sole in seaweed butter reminded me a little of a tradition Alexandre Bourdas has started in his Honfleur restaurant: the direct. He serves one product with one seasoning in the middle of the menu, to bring the diner the pure flavour of that product. This dish was very similar in conception and was very successful again. The only problem was the rather soft meat of the sole. Now, I do not know if that is due to the fact that it might have been matured or, to its tender age, but I do prefer the firm flesh of sole that is caught shortly before being eaten. Apart from this personal taste question, the dish was beautiful. The home-made seaweed butter (Mr. Bordier might want to have a look what’s going on over in Seasalter) gave the sole a much broader, complex and rich taste, that injected a full dose of sea into this delicate dish. It was incredibly powerful, but not overwhelming and was simply beautiful paired with such fine fish. I can imagine something similar with a nice, fat scallop… Excellent.
Following this, we got to the now well-known Seasalter Ham cured in April 2008. As mentioned earlier, Stephen wants to use every single part of the pig (the French have a saying that tout est bon dans le cochon) and thus started making his own ham. The fruits of this process are evolving, but the main problem remains the slightly dry meat. Compared to a good jamon iberico it lacks that incredibly luscious meltingly tender creaminess, but that certainly is no more than a question of time…
Steamed wild bass with smoked herring sauce. This sauce is a classic of the Sportsman, and one can easily see why. Not only is it incredibly fine, but also punchy and tasty. The concept must be rather similar to that, which Bernard Pacaud serves with his bar de ligne, only that the herring roe replaces the sturgeon’s. In combination with the rather soft, fine, but at the same time incredibly tasty meat of the bass, this sauce was a true winner. The slightly crunchy beens gave the dish the needed textural interest and thus acted as a counterpoint to the rather iodine flavours of the sauce and fish. Excellent.
I had asked Stephen if we could have some pork and pigeon, and he did oblige, as I was about to find out. Tenderloin and belly of old spot pork. Was an absolutely perfect dish. A nice serving of pork belly with its tenderloin, some mashed potatoes, a tiny courgette and a hearty jus is all one needs to be in heaven. The unquestionable star of the dish is the pork belly. With its incredibly crunchy crackling, it is likely to be one of the better bellies you will find these days. The braised meat, hiding under that lovely browned top gives way to a spoon, and thus makes that combination of incredibly crunchy top and meltingly tender meat absolutely divine. The person that cooked the tenderloin deserves special praise. Such juicy, tender and tasty filet mignon has never been put in front of me. This really was a mind-blowing piece of meat (even though it couldn’t steal the belly’s show). The mashed potatoes were very good too, but somehow didn’t stand out in the way the other elements did. The jus had a very enjoyable, highly concentrated, pure pork flavour that was phenomenal. This really is a 3* dish, without question. Divine.
Cheese was omitted this time, and we got straight to dessert. First up was an espresso cup, filled with “cake milk” and wild blackberry sorbet. This cake milk is rather interesting, as Stephen lets a classic pate sablee or pate sucree infuse in milk, giving it a very rich, sweet taste, which accompanies the slightly tart blackberry sorbet marvelously. Very good.
The actual dessert was an Apple parfait with wild blackberry sorbet. A healthy serving of bramley apple parfait was topped with a tuile and a quenelle of wild blackberry sorbet (for whose repeated use, the chef himself apologised). Around it was a little caramel and some home made popcorn. The remarkable thing about this parfait was the incredible taste. The apple’s tartness (Bramley apples are very tart, as far as I’m aware of) came through despite the heavy taste of cream. Here, one had a very strong, but not unpleasant flavour of apple, in a most interesting form. The acidity here really was quite intriguing, as it cut through despite the healthy dose of cream, eggs and sugar in such a preparation. The parfait’s texture was a little hard, due to the fact that it was too cold, but once it was left on the plate a little it was just as airy, creamy as it should be. Very good.
To finish the meal, a small selection of little desserts is brought to the diner. On the menu these are inappropriately named Rhubarb sorbet, but in reality there was some chocolate mousse, a plum, slightly glased with sugar and a sponge, infused with the plum’s cooking juices. With it came ice cream made from the plum’s pits. The concept of using every part of an ingredient is fantastic, and Stephen really makes use of pretty much every bit there is in a plum. But let’s start with the rhubarb sorbet. This is a bit of a classic here, and does taste of pure rhubarb, with good texture and all one can expect of a sorbet. The chocolate mousse was less interesting, but the plum was fantastic. The fruit’s flavours seemed to be concentrated by the slightly higher temperature. The sponge wasn’t bad at all, and had a present, if less pronounced taste of plum. The absolute highlight was the ice cream though. I suppose the pits are cooked and infused in milk, which is then drained and used to prepare the ice cream mix. The flavour was incredible, and the texture very fine. This was great ice cream! It somehow reminded me of a fig milk ice cream that Andoni makes at Mugaritz, which also uses parts of a fruit, no one else uses anymore. Very good.
A final little nibble was brought out to accompany coffee and we were ready to go to London.
This meal was probably the best way of coming back to England. Not only is the cooking here incredibly regional, but it also has a purity, maturity that is rare and can only be attributed to the very great chefs of the day. In addition to this Stephen’s cooking makes the best of local products and the British culinary history. Dishes like the angels on horseback (oyster fried in lardo) or the pork scratchings show only too well, how one can make the best out of English cooking, without necessarily touching or changing its foundations. My favourites this time were the wood pigeon, fried oyster and the pork dish. These were absolute masterpieces in terms of precision, taste, product quality, and everything else. The other dishes were not less amazing, as the report hopefully demonstrates. The only room for improvement I can still see are the desserts, which can be a little less amazing than the rest. This being said, the plum ice cream was staggering.
It is absolutely great to see someone like Stephen driving things ever further. There is a passion for the job, a real dedication to delivering the best there is. I can only call on your reason, and urge you to go here. You will have to look far in England to find better food, and a more enjoyable dining experience. Service really is as uncomplicated and charming as it gets.