Ever since I started this journey of visiting as many different restaurants as I could and then writing my visits down on paper for others to read. The first thing I did was to start to read as many other bloggers posts as I could, quickly I noticed a theme of the same few restaurants being reviewed by these blogs and constantly coming out with such amazing high praise. The Sportsman was certainly one of these with it constantly getting very high praise from every person who I know has been there. This being the case it quickly made it to the top of my long list of “Must Visit” restaurants, this list being made up of mostly local restaurants however a few special far distant establishments have made it to the top.
With my mind set on making this visit, I started to look at how I would even get to the restaurant being based in Devon and it being over 250miles away and 5 hours by car, I was not to keen on driving as I would most likely be falling to sleep in my lunch. The train did seem like the best option but it would be an extremely long day with the itinerary being as follows –
- 5:00am Wake Up
- 6:15am Get Train @ Newton Abbot
- 9:00am Arrive at Paddington
- 9:20am Get Tube to Victoria Station
- 9:35am Arrive at Victoria
- 10:22am Get Train to Whitstable
- 11:50am Arrive @ Whitstable
- 12:15pm Arrive @ “The Sportsman” for Lunch booking at 12:15 via Taxi
The above would be the one way journey with the return journey being the same timing but in reverse, with me arriving back home around 11:30…. Needless to say this would be a long long day and would certainly be my self proclaimed “Pilgrimage to the Sportsman” a title I was hoping would soon be confirmed as acceptable, and earned.
With everything booked 2 months in advance via email the only thing left now was the long awaited day to come.
Finally the day arrived when I would soon be sampling the food which I had such high hopes for, oddly enough I was not sleepy at all when the alarm finally awoke me and jumped out of bed with a spring in my step. I wont mention anything about the journey except that it all went without a hitch and arrived on time at whitstable station with no problems or delays. As the Taxi started to leave the main town of Whitstable I still was finding it hard to believe such an amazing foodie establish lay somewhere on this beautiful stretch of beach, as the taxi driver proclaimed we had arrived I was even more amazed as we approached the large white building, which looked more like your regular local pub serving up Scampi and Chips than somewhere of fine dining. However a small blackboard leaning against the window safely confirmed this was not your usual pub, with a note stating that it was fully booked for lunch which I doubt many places can say these days.
Walking in to the restaurant the first thing that strikes you is how bright, light, warm and airy everything is, with the bar directly infront of you. The staff immediately were great with such a warming greeting its almost like being greeted by family. With warm log fires roaring and the large block wooden tables dotted around with a large space between each area it really does put you at ease, it is so far from being pretentious its hard to even explain it. Everything in the main dining area welcomes you and puts you at ease, the waitresses and staff are all dressed in standard clothing, jeans with shirts or various other articles of plain clothing with not a single logo or mark showing staff in sight.
After talking with the staff for a few minutes and explaining the journey and them asking questions etc we were pointed to our table which was at the front of the restaurant and had a great view of the bar, and the lovely log burner. The tables are very very chunky in construction and the chairs match this style, with the tables laid very plainly with your standard cutlery and small glasses, I was most impressed with the table decorations though with vegetables of various sizes and types and upon inspections was astonished to find these were real vegetables! these were a great decoration and gave great colour to the whole place.
With drinks served and our taster menu presented we awaiting the start of our meal, the menu was very plain and gave you no clue what so ever to what you would be receiving, as simple headings stated what the main influence would be such as “scallops” or “Roast Lamb” this immediately started to ring circles through my mind to what and how each of these elements would be served or how the presentation would even be.
So it begins…. this would be the first of appetisers which would start the meal, the presentation being clean and simple, having that rustic edge using the clean slate plates. I had to sample the pork scratchings first and was very surprised upon picking my first up as these were not heavy at all and almost as light as a feather, to a point i’m sure if I was just to sneeze they would blow away, the taste was not your standard pork scratchings as well, they had a great light salty taste coming through which in the mouth almost melted onto your tongue and presented your taste buds with that fabulous pork taste, you almost didn’t even need to swallow as they melted away in your mouth. The apple sauce added a great sweet taste to these and quickly, I found myself trying to find weird and wonderful ways of combining 1 or 2 separate pork scratchings to force even more sauce into my mouth with a slight heat of the mustard just coming to the palate at the end of the bite. The pickled herring on first taste was very overpowering with the strong fish dominating the palate, however as I continued to chew and taste this small canape all the flavours started to come through and combined to produce something truly special, the soda bread added a great earthiness and with the sweetness of the pineapple, it all worked with the strong fish to make this my favorite item.
This would be my first ever experience of oysters as I have never been in a position before to sample this delicacy before. The chef came out and presented these to us and gave a brief explanation of the dish and why he used these combinations, I loved this as it really does put you in the mind of the chef and gives you an idea of what he was trying to present and push across to his diners. Being my first time sampling these my mother kindly passed on these being the not to adventurous type and I was only to glad to accept both of these to myself. I decided to eat one down without chewing and the second to chew as this would then test the two different ways I keep being told one should eat these. The first I held it my mouth to allow the flavours to develop and not knowing what to expect at all, I was immediately shocked by the strong salt flavour and the sort of creaminess which comes from the oyster luckily the apple foam quickly came through and added that sweet acidic touch which came through with the subtle hint of the meaty pork just developing at the end of the tasting, this was then swallowed without chewing. The second consisted of chewing which although gave the same flavours, added a very creamy taste and texture which I found quickly I was not to fond of, however I now know for the future that I prefer to sample this type of shellfish in one go and not to chew.
As anyone whom reads my reviews regularly will know I am extremely fond of home made fresh bread and knowing this and reading other reviews of the Sportsman I couldn’t wait for this dish to come. I was not disappointed at all with a large wooden block presented filled with delicious bread, these were all describe at the table and we were also told about the home made butter which is made at the establishment. The Flat bread would be the first to be sampled, this had such a hard tough crust and not only the base but the top as well, with it being a great bread to tear chunks off and fill with butter, it such a great texture being light insides but the crust offsetting this completely. The soda bread was the shocker as this is something i’m not normally to keen on as its very very dense, however here the taste was just amazing with the flavours developing throughout chewing and then the butter hitting with a great salty flavour towards the end, I only wish here I had a huge pot of strawberry jam to compliment this amazing bread!! Finally the focaccia was to be sampled, this was very very soft and made for quite a challenge to butter however I quickly learned this is better without the butter and just letting the strong flavours of the rosemary and onion come through fully in the mouth, the crust had the whole strips of onions and sprigs of rosemary and added a great alternative texture. The best bit of the entire selection was the base of the Focaccia bread which had collected all the olive oil used in the cooking, and almost had developed into a fried bread which was dripping in this amazing oil, tasting this I was blown away and munched my way through my entire slice within about 2 minutes…… Unfortunately for my dining partner a invisible individual took her base of the focaccia….. (Whistles) we still don’t know who took that…
This dish arrived about 5minutes after the bread was served, so I was still very busy tucking into the bread and butter and therefore left this dish to the side for a few minutes, but as this dish was cold I doubt this affected the it at all. The chef again presented this to us and immediately asked if we were “sqeemish” before describing the dish, considering nothing really affects me he proceeded to describe how he actually slices the scallop while it’s still alive so it’s very fresh. This was dressed with some walnut oil, and fresh seaweed sourced locally, on first taste I was immediately hit with the walnut oil flavour which was the dominant taste at first, then the sweetness and saltiness of the scallop and seaweed combined with the nutty touches proceed on the palette to make for a great combination. This was also a good dish to serve while eating with the bread, due to the additional walnut oil left on the plate, as this allowed one to take a sneaky bit of bread to “mop” up the remaining oil and juices.
This was presented in a great unusual way with the scalloping being held by a skewer just above the soup, I have to mention that upon picking up the delicate spoon it is as light as a feather! Literally I thought I would break it, but it’s made of very light weight wood and both myself and my dining partner were shocked at how light it was. The soup was extremely tasty with a very strong sweet pumpkin flavour, but was seasoned and balanced well with it not being over salty at all, this was extremely rich though and I can appreciate why such a small portion is provided. I could easily understand if the same portion size was offered as a starter, as by the end I can safely say I had enough which in my eyes makes it the perfect small taster. The scallop was amazing, being crisp on the outside with the bacon adding that porky salty edge and the creamy, sweet and perfectly cooked scallop being gorgeous to eat. Due to it being on a skewer when combining this with the soup it was great with both the sweetness of the pumpkin and scallop complimenting each other perfectly.
With this dish I love how the chef has only used the brown/dark crab meat in the actual risotto and then utilises the lovely white meat on top of the risotto. Originally I thought this was just for presentation but I soon learned this had a very important purpose, due to when I tasted the risotto it was extremely flavoursome with excellent seasoning, however the flavours were just abit too powerful for my palette with the richness just proving abit too much. Though when combining the light and refreshing tasting white meat with the risotto it took the richness away slightly, this for me just made for the perfect combination and the flavours which marry to make this one of the best risottos I have sampled.
This dish was exactly how described on the menu and was simply cured ham, however a twist was here yet again when the chef describing it with a brief description, but urged us to read the accompanying page of writing. This page describes how this pork came to be and the story behind it and was fascinating to read, this was great as it gave such a great insight into how this was produced. The pork it self didn’t have a great strong smell to it and didn’t really have any smell apart from a saltiness, however the taste was surprisingly not too salty and was delightful, the meat was quite dry but the fat which was plentiful added some moisture to the slice and was needed.
The immediate smell of this dish was so intense I couldn’t believe it with smells of strong sherry, and then of smokey pork to finish it off, I couldn’t wait to tuck into this one. The fish was perfectly cooked and the pristine white flesh which just pealed and fell away, it was perfectly seasoned with a smooth texture, the below greens had a little bite still left in them which allowed for a change of texture of the smooth fish and was a appreciated addition. The star of this dish though was the sauce it was so good I don’t think I can even start to describe it, it had the texture and initial taste of Hollandaise but then towards the end of the taste it smacked your palette with a strong sherry hit with a hint of acid which was just incredible, it was not too overpowering that it destroyed the fish but complimented beautifully. The smoked pork atop the fish was the final item to be enjoyed and I can only describe this as a beautifully crisp item of smokey belly pork which just cracked and fell apart in your mouth.
This item was again presented by the chef who explained this was just the first lamb item and the main would follow, he explained how he was trying to modernise this traditional English dish with some oriental elements. The item was a cut of lamb which had then been coated thickly in breadcrumbs and deep fried, this was accompanied by a small pot of mint dipping sauce. I first sampled the lamb without the sauce and my breath was just taken away by how utterly tender the meat was with it just peeling away in your mouth, the bread crumbs were crispy and not soft but internal initial layer of breadcrumbs were just packed full of the lamb juices and flavours. Next I dipped my remaining lamb into the dipping sauce and it was just insane how tasty this item was, the lamb having the same great flavour but the mint sauce being just so fresh, I can only start to describe this as a memory of when I was a child and picking fresh mint leaves in my Nan’s garden, it had a freshness which I have not tasted before in this type of sauce. The liquid again was not your standard vinegar and had a hint of white wine or sherry which just made for such a sweet addition to the mint and lamb, overall this was just fantastic with the combination of flavours being perfect together. By the time I had finished my lamb slice, I found my self just dipping my finger into the sweet sauce as it was just that good.
When this dish was presented we were asked if we wanted more of the delicious mint sauce which came with the breaded lamb, to which I jumped at the chance, and I love how the restaurant encourages you to change the flavours of the dish to your own liking. The first item sampled here had to be the most dominant on the plate which was the lamb chop, it was immensely tender which the knife just sliding through the pink meat, the taste which filled your mouth again was very flavoursome and was cooked to absolute perfection. The gravy which is amazing has that great home cooked flavours which remind me of my mum’s roast dinners, it was very well seasoned and added a great compliment to the lamb and even better with the addition of the fresh tasting mind sauce. The braised shoulder of lamb had a crispy top which I can only compare to belly pork, this would be the item your family would be fighting over when your leg of roast lamb is pulled from the oven at Sunday dinner, it was great tasting with a crisp crunch to the bite, the shoulder meat itself just fell apart with the slightest touch of the fork. The vegetables were all great with the main vegetables being cooked well with a good bite to them at the centre but being soft on the outer edges, the greens which lay beneath the lamb chop were beautiful and full of butter which only complimented the tastes of the other elements.
I have to admit here this was one dish I was particularly looking forward to, due to the nature of it being such a great way to present and eat any form of food…. On a stick!!. The main lolly was made of iced rose hip and had a nice suttle sweetness, this was presented already deeply immersed in the milk. Now the milk is what the restaurant calls “Cake Milk”, I believe this is because it is actual cake which has been ground down into the milk, as it had a very sweet and strong vanilla taste also there was very small/fine grains throughout the liquid. Once you had lifted the lolly out of the mixture and sucked off the milk, when you replaced your lolly back into the milk, I was amazed to find how quickly the milk quickly set around again to allow for a repeat performance. The two difference elements made for a great combination with the subtle sweetness of the rose hip working with the strong vanilla flavours of the mixture, this is a dish I will remember for many years to come not only for the originality, but very good combination of flavours.
With this dish I was surprised to see ice cream with cheese which had almost been melted over it, I don’t know how this was achieved but it made for great eye catching presentation. The main ice cream was very good with a subtle sweetness and not that over bearing vanilla flavour normally held within ice cream, I like the flavour that cream cheese brought to this and thought it worked well. The sweetness was to be found in the meringue and crumble topping which was lightly scattered across the entire dish, it presented your taste buds with such different flavours and textures it all worked very well with one another. Once you added the pear into the above equation this just became the perfect dish with the pear being intensely refreshing and just brought the entire dish together in terms of sweetness,texture and being surprisingly refreshing. I was very impressed by the portion on this dish, with normally tasting menus getting smaller towards desserts, but being the pudding lover I am was more than happy with this being a great size.
Here I decided that due to the Apple sorbet being the only item mentioned on the menu, this should be the item to be tasted first. The sorbet was toped with a light cream and just under was a layer of popping candy/space dust which pop and sizzled on your tongue and was very surprising and unexpected, but not disliked. The apple sorbet was so packed full of apple flavour i’m sure at one point I was eating simple pureed apple with the taste being gorgeous, and not being too acidic or too sweet.
Next was the shortbread which upon picking up, I discovered this was very very light and did not feel like your usual dense shortbread which I have become used to sampling, it had a very light taste with a subtle hint of butter which worked well, this was a welcome change to dense, clingy and brittle shortbread we are served all too often.
Junket was next, Ill say now that I have never tried this before so have nothing to base the flavour on, but the smooth and pristine white liquid on the base had a strong milk flavour with a hint of vanilla, which when combined with the taste of the compote and nuts on top made for a great flavour combination, the nuts did slightly over power the other tastes but I liked how this worked and provided a nutty edge to the dish.
Finally was the dish i’m sure i’ve dreamt up many times in my sweetest dreams, the moose was intensely packed full of dark chocolate flavour and was as light as a feather with air bubbles showing throughout the moose. Beneath however lay what I can only describe as liquid gold, being the salty caramel mixture which was complete liquid and proved quite difficult to get onto the spoon, however the work was payed off with the intense sweetness of the caramel which was calmed slightly by the salty addition. The combination of the slightly bitter dark chocolate combined with the very sweet caramel, made for a dish that should have a permanent place in the heaven of chocolate.
This brought a close to the tasting menu and my lunch on this day with the coffee’s served and the bill brought to the table. The entire meal came to £136 with the tasting menu being £55 each and the rest being made up of the 10% service charge and drinks, I think for what was served this was great value with myself in the past paying double this for some tasting menus,only to leave still wanting something extra or not being full and contempt. I was happy to not only pay the 10% standard service charge but also pay some extra with the service on this visit being absolutely fantastic, everyone was friendly, courteous and the fact the chef made the special effort not only to come and greet his diners, but also explained some of the dishes it made for a fantastic visit. We even found ourselves just standing and chatting with the waitresses at the end of the meal for a good 15minutes before leaving, they were so kind enough to point us in the direction of the great local walks around the area, across the beach etc and showed great concern about us getting lost, which shows the great personal care is taken by them all.
Overall – 10/10
Now this is the first 10/10 I have ever given on this blog, and i’m sure this is not something that will come around all too often. The Sportsman for me is something that is such a rare thing in todays dining culture, the service was personal and polite without being too much with every single person being such a pleasure to talk too. I can’t even put into words how un-pretentious the entire place was, the whole place makes you feel you can sit there in your sandy boots, with your jeans and hoody on, to only then be absolutely shocked by such amazing food and surprises which lie ahead to experience. The food was mind blowing with combinations, local produce and flavours which i’ve never experienced before, and doubt I will experience again in the near future, with the food being such locally sauced I could see the farm from the window with the lambs still grazing.
The only adding thing I can do to put try and get my point to how nice and relaxed this environment was is this picture…….
Say hello to “Oliver” who was sat at the bar with his owner who had just come back from his walk and was more than happy to pose for the camera, I think his calm, happy, content and eager look on his face is exactly what this place represents.
Unforgettable and I now am already planning my next Pilgrimage.