Yea right…, that’s what I thought, when a certain Paul (now in charge of mains here) invited me to make the way to Seasalter for a meal at the restaurant he was working at. Why would I want to go to place that is this far from London and that I had never even heard of up to then?
This was sometime in October last year. I had just come to London, didn’t know anything about the place and found this on their website: We saw no limit to what we could serve at The Sportsman and happily sent out food that matched for flavour what we had eaten in 2 and 3 Michelin starred restaurants.
It sounded relatively pretentious to me. Somehow, it seemed quite like the nightmare British restaurant, where some fool thinks very highly of himself and serves absolutely horrible food (think kitchen nightmares’ worst cases), but as time progressed I heard more and more from some very knowledgeable sources. What was interesting, was the fact, that all of them had only one comment to make about the place: Fantastic, outstanding, best meal of the year,….
So, having written three of my four examns, I made a trip down to the coast to enjoy a day away from the books. Taking the train down to Faversham was actually nearly as expensive as the meal I had, which should tell you a lot about this place’s pricing policy. The tasting menu here is a mere £55. Now, in Paris, that might by you a dessert in restaurants of the same quality, or a lobster claw. Certainly no more. Here, however, you get what I could say was among the best, if not the finest food served in the UK these days.
The reasons that make me rate this place as highly as The Square, The Greenhouse or Ducasse at the Dorchester, are very simple: Products far better than anything the earlier mentioned restaurants use, in fact some of the stuff was as good as it gets, even on par with the best Parisian temples. Also, Stephen Harris, the chef, is someone who goes out in the morning to pick up some herbs by the sea, makes his own butter (not that that’s a great achievement, but it makes a hell of a difference!), his own ham, his own salt, grows his own vegetables,… Recently, he even started making the farm across the pub raise the breed of pork, chicken, veal and lamb that he wants to use. I don’t know how you would describe this, but it is somehow like L’Arpege, with the garden right behind the restaurant and prices that are around five times lower.
The house isn’t what I would call ugly, but it certainly isn’t in the best of shapes. Do I care? No, I certainly don’t in this case. Especially, since the interior is lovely, like the pub you always dream of as a foreigner in this country. Wood dominates it, which creates a very warm atmosphere. In winter, they have a lovely fire burning, which will heat up anyone coming through the doors. There are no Riedel glasses, nor is there Limoges porcelain, or silver cutlery, but do we need that? We may, if the food is not good enough to stand up there for itself. Read on, and you will see why this place doesn’t need it.
All in all, service was absolutely fantastic: Sweet, attentive and charming. They might not pour you wine, but why do we have two arms for? However, you do get more smiles than in a great deal of other places and they do make sure, that you feel well there!
As I said already, having made the journey down from London, I was in for the full show, nothing less. So tasting menu it was, £55 and a hell of a ride! Anyone coming down, be prepared for one of the best surprises you’ll have in your food life. And one of the most enjoyable meals ever.
To start us off, we had brought a bottle of Louis Roederer Brut Premier, which was as great as this fine non-vintage Champagne usually is. To not leave us without anything to go with it, we were given a first round of snacks: Oysters with gooseberry granite and beurre blanc. The oyster was poached and trimmed and tasted as good as an oyster can possibly. Together with the slightly sweet granite, it was the perfect start to this meal. I guess, that this is one of the best ways for anyone to get accustomed to oysters, even if they don’t like them. Very good and already highly indicative of Harris’s style: local ingredients, cooked in simple, technically perfect ways, paired with some interesting, sometimes unusual elements.
Next up, came some serious stuff. Unfortunately, the portion barely sufficed, so we had to ask for another roun. The pork scratchings however, were truly fantastic. This was as good as pork gets, crunchy, tasty, tender, fatty (not too much though) and simply delicious. I love any part of the pork, and this was just what I had hoped to get here.With it came a pickled herring on bread. I can’t recall any better herring. Fantastic.
Good lord, I thought, these guys do some real amuse bouches, send out little mouthfuls that are better than an entire meal at other restaurants in London. Why didn’t I listen to Paul in October and followed his advice? I began to realise that their description of the cooking wasn’t that pretentious after all, rather it was as fitting as it could possibly be.
Anyways, we continued with the butter that is churned in the kitchen and seasoned with the home made salt. This was some seriously good butter. I can’t really follow all of this butter craze going on, but in this case, I must make an exception. It was simply enormously tasty, rich, perfectly seasoned, creamy butter, that was as good as Arpeges famous Bordier butter. With it, came the house made bread. Three kinds were served : Sourdough, focaccia and buttermilk bread. All of them were fantastic, but by far the best was the focaccia, which was as good as the one Mauro Colagreco or Illario Mosconi serve. It was drenched in olive oil and had a fantastically crunchy, nearly caramelised crust. This bread is listed as part of the menu, and, as ulterior epicure said, rightfully so. It really is fantastic.
Just in time for the first course, we opened a Luxembourgish bottle I had brought: A Riesling from Mathis Bastian, Premier Grand Cru from 2006. A wine from a very fine winemaker, who makes some fantastic vin de paille and vendanges tardives. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the best of his wines, but all, I had over here. It certainly was enjoyable and disappeared as quickly as the bottle of Roederer.
The next course was simply called Rockpool. It reminded me of Olivier Roellinger’s marine broth, in which he takes a mussel broth and infuses it with all kinds of herbs that grow on rocky coastlines. Here, Stephen got the basic idea from Pascal Barbot, on which he then created a very different dish. He went out early in the morning to collect the herbs at the seaside. That is something not every chef can nor would do, but it certainly shows what passion he puts in his work. The stock itself, was made from the bones of a very large turbot, of which we were to see more later on. With it came some extremely juicy cockles and crab. The cockles were simply the best I can recall to ever have eaten, as they were not only juicy, but also extremely tender and tasty. All in all, this was the sea at it’s best. It just epitomised what one expects of a marine broth, and maybe went even further. A very delicate spicing with star anise, preserved mandarin, liquorice and lemon verbena awoke the dish and made it even more complex. Due to these touches, every mouthful gave you a different nuance. What can you say, fantastic and puzzling at the same time. Why do you have to eat this kind of food in a 1* pub, when a 3* in London can’t even serve you anything remotely close? Just look at the effort that went into this: Perfectly clarified, powerful, divinely spiced, truly outstanding!
I though the last dish was great, but what came up next surpassed it: Crab Risotto. Simple, slightly overcooked Arborio rice, mixed with brown and white crab meat and topped with a nice serving of more white crab meat. Some have already said it all: It tastes like the essence of crab. Pure, rich, decadent, great, iodine, outstanding… In this case, even the overcooked rice (deliberate choice, as Stephen told me) made sense, as the rest of the dish was quite creamy. This turned it into the best comfort food one can think of. Outstanding, even though I would prefer a risotto to be cooked al dente.
Next up, was another curiosity: Seasalter Ham cured in December 2007. I like a good piece of jamon iberico, or pata negra as it is often called in these waters. However, since I came this far north, I haven’t bought any, as I didn’t find anything that equals the quality you find in Spain. Plus, most people cut it on a machine, which ruins the whole thing. I guess that Stephen, obviously being an amateur of good, real things, wanted to have some nice ham for himself and went on and did it, like he does so many other things too. The result is not as good as a nice 36 month old Iberico de bellota de bellota 5J, but I was quite surprised at how good it was. The fat was deliciously tender and melted away, the flavour was deep, nicely salty and the whole thing had some very subtle sweetness. Only, the meaty part was somewhat drier than I had hoped. Don’t worry though, I am fairly certain, that these guys will get it right pretty quickly. In the end you might have some of the best ham in the made outside of Spain or Italy by the British seaside. Would you have ever thought that to be possible? So far, they aren’t quite there, so we shall come back from time to time, to see how the ham develops. As you can see, any excuse is good enough to go back here.
Just before reaching the fish course(s), we opened a very nice bottle: A Kistler Dutton Ranch, 2006. A fantastic wine, which had a great complexity and subtle smokiness, that accompanied the turbot beautifully.
Ah, this one was interesting. Seeing that the turbot was relatively large and had a substantial amount of roe on it, we were served a unique treat. They smoked the roe, which gave it a fantastic richness and went beautifully with the fantastic Kistler. It was the first time I ever had turbot roe, and I hope it wasn’t the last. The texture was highly interesting and I simply loved the full, smoky flavour of the eggs. Eaten with some of the buttermilk bread, it was a simple delight. Very good.
So, this was what we all waited for: Turbot braised in vin jaune with smoked pork. Good boy, look at the size of that fillet (it is only half of the fish, as they only served the top fillet). It was caught the day before, but already had this gelatinous feeling and it’s firmness started to break down. It wasn’t quite as firm as the one I had at ADPA, which must still be the benchmark turbot for me, but it certainly wasn’t very far away. This was one hell of a piece of fish. Also, it was cooked better than you could ever hope to have any restaurant cook a fish like this. The accompanying vin jaune sauce was as good as a sauce of that kind gets: rich in flavour, creamy, perfectly balanced. Truly outstanding in every sense. The asparagus were cooked to delightful texture, not as mushy as they often are, which I absolutely love. Don’t forget the piece of smoked pork though, it was yet another crunchy/melting piece of heaven. The smokiness and powerful richness was undoubtedly fantastic. Just to remind you, we had the juices extracted from the bones, the roe and the filet. I absolutely adore having a great variety of cuts or parts from any animal, as it allows you to get an idea of the different textures and tastes. Divine.
For the meat courses, a friend had brought a bottle of Chinon, whose producer I failed to note. It was certainly enjoyable and disappeared as quickly as the other bottles before it.
The Monkshill farm lamb we ate with great pleasure grazed in the fields around the pub a few days earlier, which is a great feeling, as you won’t have the possibility to eat such a product every day. To tell you that this is some good salt marsh lamb wouldn’t do it justice. It was truly fantastic and came in three instances.
First up was the deep-fried neck or belly (don’t remember which part it was) with mint sauce. I had waited and prayed for this dish to come up, so I was delighted to see it land on the table. Only problem, the pictured portion was for two. Hardly enough for me, seeing that it was better than any words can tell. This was seriously, exceptional and outstanding (again). The lamb was braised before being fried, which gave you the meltingly tender meat as a contrast to the crunchy breading. Here, the classically British mint sauce gave the otherwise relatively rich piece of meat a delightful freshness. Truly divine.
lamb pt. 1
Next up, came the roasted rack and the rolled, braised shoulder. The shoulder was fantastic, as it had both the lovely tender texture braised meat has and a crunchy crust, which just must be the best combination of textures one can possibly have on this earth. The rack was very good, in fact much better than the one I had a week earlier at the Square, or indeed a great deal of stuff I have had up to now. Just to let you know, they can cook meat in a way, that would make any 3* restaurant proud. But, this dish wasn’t only the perfect meat and jus, no, it came with some of the best broad beans I have had this year. Bursting with flavour, double chucked, and cooked to perfection, these went beautifully with the lamb. They came, as so many things here from about 10m away from the restaurant, which does make the difference. Stephen chose them very carefully, taking only the smaller ones, which obviously are the best. The only thing I could have done without was the cabbage. It was nice, but the lamb, jus, and beans would have done me just fine. Excellent.
A second meat course was a piece of pork, well two actually, of which one was truly spectacular. The pigs were raised right next to the pub, as most of the rest was too and were as good as Joachim Wissler’s porky masterpieces. Especially the belly had amazing taste and a crackling that was simply to die for. The loin was less mind-blowing, but that is nothing new. The better the cut, the cheaper it (usually) is. Especially, if you have someone as good as Harris prepare it for you. This was a seriously divine dish.
To end the savoury part of the meal, we had some cheeses. Apparently, Stephen drives to Calais in order to get some decent cheeses over to the island. That’s probably what one calls commitment. They certainly were good, although less extraordinary than the rest. The best were the Sainte Maure, which was wonderfully creamy, the Calvados marinated Camembert and an Ashmore. No large selection, but one that was carefully chosen, in order to let the diner fully enjoy it.
To go with the dessert, we had a bottle of Chateau Climens,, 1999. This was another very satisfying wine, which I certainly shall not forget all too soon.
To get us going, we had a truly British dessert. An eldeflower posset. I must say, despite being very British, it was very close to a (very good) panna cotta. Not that this is a bad thing, but it shows us once more, how the name of the same dish differs from one place to the other. Very good.
elderflower pt. 1
Here again, this was only one part of the Elderflowers dessert. It continued with deep fried elderflowers and an ice cream lolly dipped into some custard or cake milk(not sure about that part). The deep fried flower was truly great, the custard/ice cream lolly was good fun too. All in all, a very pleasing little composition, which once again showed the diner the different elements of the main protagonist. Very good, and excellent for the deep fried elderflowers.
elderflower pt. 2
To follow this, we had Rhubarb Sorbet. In fact, it was much more than that. The rhubarb sorbet was very well made, and with it came a very boring and uninspiring chocolate mousse and a very good custard/raspberry tart. Apart from the strangely out of place mousse, this was a fine set of mignardises. In the background one can see some gooseberry granite and a lemon posset ice cream, which was a lovely, refreshing finish.
Being a gourmand as much as a gourmet, I couldn’t miss out on the famous lemon tart, they make here. In the end, I must say that I was very happy to have asked for it, as it was a very fine example of this glorious dessert. Maybe slightly less divine as Keller’s version (which one can find in his French Laundry cookbook), but certainly among the better ones. The only problem was the pastry, which became slightly soggy on the bottom of the tart. With a nicely crispy bottom, this would have been outstanding. The ice cream, dusted with concentrated seawater spray was great. It sat upon some crushed meringue, which gave it a nice textural counterpoint. The seawater spray was a great invention. In a way this combination of lemon, salt, sugar reminded me somehow of the great thing that they have on the Riviera and the whole Mediterranean: Citron confit. The salt gives it a much more complex taste, and balances the sweetness. Excellent.
Looking back, it is hardly credible. One of the best, if not the best, meal(s) I have had in the UK was in an unassuming pub, somewhere in the middle of nowhere in Kent. The products were simply the very finest one can possibly hope to find anywhere on this Island and were prepared with the greatest attention. The cooking here does not need any decoration, it will literally be 3 elements on a plate in many cases, in some even less. It is such a welcome change, especially after seeing that incredibly complicated, often rather mediocre food one might find in many restaurants anywhere in the world. The fact, that Harris can rely on his products with such confidence, and his passion for what he does, make this a special place.
To dismiss his style as simply simple would not do it justice. There is much more to it. There is, for instance, this theme of using various parts of the animals, in order to give the diner a wide spectrum of these. For instance, the slightly less common bits, like the turbot roe, the lamb belly or the elderflowers make it even more unique. That aspect of his cooking particularly appeals to me. Some had various servings of scallops or brill which look equally tasty. The concept of his cooking is further driven to constant new heights by his travels to the absolute best restaurants in the world in order to have an idea what his colleagues concoct in their corners. However, instead of simply copying a dish, he might take an idea (Barbot’s broth) or association and work with it to eventually come up with a resolutely different dish (rockpool). It is good to see, that he actually admits that he got that idea from that guy, this one from another guy. Some other people would claim to be the most creative geniuses the world has seen.
Apart from the great food, there is the fantastically cheap wine list, which certainly isn’t comparable to that of the Greenhouse, but does have some interesting bottles amongst the selection. In terms of price, you look at mark ups that are in the area of £15-£30. If one wants to drink a specific wine, one better bring it (corkage is something like £5 or £10).
Finally, there is the great service, uncomplicated, smiling in a sincere way, attentive and always there when you need anything.
All of these factors, make of this restaurant the great place that it is. Probably, the only restaurant in the UK, that is truly worth traveling for.
I should have listened to Paul, but at least I finally found out and will visit them much more often…