Stephen Harris is passionate about the food he serves. He goes to remarkable lengths in order to serve his guests the best possible product in the most suitable way. There are no fireworks on the plate here, just perfect, simple dishes, that completely rely on absolutely top quality local products. By the way, local really means local here, as the vast majority of the stuff comes from either the sea in front of the restaurant, the salt marshes besides it, or the garden next to it. This is serious, and the experience of eating here is unique due to exactly this.
Whenever I go here, I come with at least one friend, and we all bring wines. This time I brought a 2002 R.H. Coutier Grand Cru Ambonnay Champagne which great power (100% Pinot Noir from Ambonnay), was vinous and just beautiful. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the time to let it sit and open up a little, but it still was a stunning wine, especially when one considers its price (I paid around £45 for this). After this we had a few glasses of 2000 Chablis Grand Cru Bougros from William Fevre, which was, just like many other Chablis’ quite closed at first, but then grew and grew in the glass. For the meaty part of the meal my friend brought a 2003 Alion, the second wine from Vega Sicilia, which was a very very enjoyable wine, that fitted the game we were served today brilliantly. The crown jewel today was a 2001 Yquem. Now, I know that it’s quite young to drink Yquem, but in such a vintage, it already tastes bloody damn good.
The meal started with the inevitable pork scratchings with herring, apple and soda bread. These are certainly some of the most enjoyable little nibbles around, and the quality of the pigs, reared just outside the restaurant, makes these scratchings easily the best I’ve come across. Their texture is simply astonishing: Crunchy on the outside, nearly creamy within, they have a somewhat slightly sweet taste. The herring was top quality, and worked brilliantly with the apple and soda bread. Excellent to outstanding.
Next up was a scallop with Seasalter ham and apple. the products were top quality here, the scallop having a delightful texture, and great taste, that was somewhat overwhelmed by the apple mousse. When one put the latter aside, the dish worked and was beautiful, so the second scallop was great. I would imagine this to be brilliant, if one slightly warms the ham, so that the fat is just melting… . This was very nice.
The next part of the scallop tasting was one cooked in seaweed butter, and the other cooked in Espelette butter. This was exemplary cooking of scallops: Uniformly perfectly cooked, they were stunning, that’s all one can say. The seaweed butter (made by Stephen, just like the Espelette one and the ham, among many other things) gave the one scallop a slightly iodine note, reminding you of it’s origin, whilst the Espelette butter gave the other scallop a very warm, slightly spicy note, which was beautiful too. This was brilliant minimalism, that lets the product stand for itself. And only for itself. Excellent.
Following this, maybe a little too late, as the butter in the shells would have been brilliant with the bread, came the house made bread. The foccacia here is stunning: The bottom is caramelised, so that it is crunchy, and its taste is very broad and rich. The other two types of bread are equally well-made, and are simply brilliant. The home-churned butter is in the same league: Fully-flavoured, rich and beautiful. Stephen’s self-collected salt finishes this butter beautifully. Excellent.
Salmagundy- a salad of winter vegetable with a smoked egg yolk. A traditional Kentish dish, that is something similar to the Garguillou from Michel Bras, or any other vegetable dishes like those Ducasse serves in Monaco or Passard in Paris. Here, a smoked egg yolk adds brilliance, and each of the cooked vegetables just tastes of itself. It’s just very well made, and shows again, how interesting, and good one can make a few vegetables taste. One of the highlights of the meal. Excellent.
The next highlight was just about to come: Smoked wigeon, puy lentils and quince. A very rare, if not raw, wigeon, was slightly smoked and served with a few lentils and a quince puree. This was a melt-in-your-mouth tender piece of wigeon, which had remarkable taste. I’ve never even heard of such a bird before, and I was more than surprised by its brilliant taste. Marvelous!
A little taster of Stephen’s Seasalter ham cured in January 2008 was good, although it still is a little tough on the teeth. The last fine tuning will probably still need some time. Very good.
The next dish showed just how good Stephen Harris can cook turbot: Turbot with Chestnuts, bacon and parsley sauce. This was a beautiful piece of turbot, perfectly cooked and seasoned. All it needed were a few, supporting elements, that made for a brilliant dish. The combination with the turbot and bacon particularly made the meaty character of the fish more pronounced. Excellent.
The Roast Saddle of Venison with watercress puree, bread sauce and red wine sauce was another winner. Perfectly cooked, the very tender meat was accompanied by very convincing little sprouts of broccoli, creamy polenta (or mashed potatoes, I don’t recall exactly) and watercress puree. The sauce was exemplary in both texture and taste, and in general it was another dish, that just let the ingredient shine, and boy did it shine bright. Excellent.
Moving on, we had some cheese, which was very good, as usual. Stephen still sometimes goes to Calais to get the cheese he wants, which is one more sign of his incredible commitment to his products.
The dessert round started with the Pear ice lolly with ginger cake-milk, which was as good as ever. The milk giving the light, slightly sour sorbet a more rich foundation. Good.
The Chocolate tart with tangerine ice cream was beautiful, with the lemon tart probably the best dessert I’ve eaten at the Sportsman so far. This was very powerful, and didn’t really work that well with the Yquem, but it was excellent.
To accompany the Yquem, Stephen was so kind to bring us a little piece of a fascinating tarte tatin. This was a very fine tarte tatin indeed, and worked brilliantly with the Yquem. Excellent.
To finish this amazing meal, we had the usual selection of little desserts: Apple sorbet, gypsy tart ice cream, shortbread and chocolate mousse with salted caramel. These were all very good, only the chocolate mousse still escapes me. It’s somewhat not really interesting, even if well made. Very good.
This was another very fine meal at the Sportsman. Stephen pulled out all the stops and I spent a very happy few hours down in Seasalter. As I, and a few other people already said: The Sportsman is an experience. It’s about the incredible products, the simple but perfect cooking, the place, the very friendly, but uncomplicated service, and the stark contrast to London, from which a number of diners come down. Come here and forget the rest of the world. You’ll not regret the somewhat complicated journey!