The Sportsman. No sex please, we’re British.
I rang the hotel reception. Do you think that you can have a word with the couple in the next hut? We’ve only been here a couple of hours and they’ve had sex twice and I can hear everything.
When it first started, I’d been in two minds as to whether to call the emergency services, not sure whether it was pleasure or pain on the other side of the paper-thin walls. I came to the conclusion that it was both. The emergency service I needed was one delivering earplugs.
I’d been chancing my arm, taking C to stay in a converted fisherman’s hut in Whitstable. With his preference for grand luxe , he was never going to be happy with a glorified two-storey shed on a beach, but I’d sweetened the pill by the promise of food, at the Michelin-starred Sportsman, just up the road. And Whitstable itself was a revelation. Lots of chi-chi little shops, a dangerous boutique, women of a certain age in asymmetrical dresses and a self-consciously retro feel made it a place that I was very happy to spend time in. But the main event was, as ever, the feeding of our faces.
You get a sense of The Sportsman from their own (excellent) website:
” A common theme in many write-ups… is that The Sportsman is remote, bleak and a bit of a dump. Equally, many regulars find this point of view shocking as they love to arrive early, go for a walk on the beach and then have lunch or dinner”
Not open to us, the walk along the beach thing, arriving on a damp September evening in the dark. And it is little bit makeshift and unfashionable, in that it doesn’t have the standard trappings of London gastropubs. It hasn’t been Hoxtonised and I don’t recall anyone with a dodgy beard. But I like it all the better for that.
You could, conceivably, drive to The Sportsman, on the old coastal road between Whitstable and Faversham but I wouldn’t recommend it. Not if you wanted the tasting menu, by some accounts lasting over three hours and according to all who know, the thing to have. Recent back surgery meant that I had to limit myself to the à la carte, although limit isn’t a word I’d use to describe the amount we ate.
The restaurant is fronted by Stephen Harris, who with chef Dan Flavell, is the driving force behind their subtle and interesting food, using ingredients from only local suppliers. I have been known to get a bit irritated by the insistence of local, as if that alone is a guarantee of quality. Here, this is not some affectation. The area is noted in the Domesday book as belonging to the kitchens of Canterbury cathedral and when the local produce is this good then it would make no sense not to use it.
There was no way that the local oysters were not going to feature. Ultra fresh, served with the usual trimmings, I would not have been surprised if I was told they had been in the sea five minutes earlier. And the breads were astonishingly good. Homemade sourdough, focaccia and soda-bread with excellent butter. Six slices. Even Mr I’m-not-doing-carbs had to give in and try some. I only ate the five slices in the end.
Given that slip sole seems to be synonymous with The Sportsman, I had to order it. We’d had a bit of a debate at the bar about starters as C had wanted to have it as well, but he was having fish for his main course. Mr Harris kindly suggested that it might not be the best combination. I’ll have soup, says C. You can’t, I say. You don’t really want soup. Translation: I don’t really want soup.
What about mackerel? said Mr Harris. I hate mackerel, says C. Hate? Are we five years old? At this point I had to take over and insist on the celeriac. You’ll like it, really. We can swap if you don’t. Sometimes he doesn’t know what’s good for him.
And the slip sole was all it was cracked up to be. A fat, firm sole, smothered in delicate seaweed butter and trimmed to perfection, this was excellent. It pained me to hand over the plate for the changing of the starter, but the celeriac with goats curd was also extremely good and even C had to admit that he liked it. And that I was right. Okay he didn’t actually say that bit but I know he was thinking it.
And then I had the pork belly, with mashed potatoes, on a bed of greens. A large square of juicy pork, with a thick layer of crisp crackling I am hoping that if there is a god he will forgive my lapsed Jewish soul and make allowances for human weakness because if you like this sort of thing, this will be the sort of thing which you will like very much at The Sportsman. I loved it. I could not finish it. Not when I had already committed carbicide and there were still desserts to be had.
I asked the waitress to recommend something small. She did mention other desserts but the dial stuck at the chocolate tart, salted caramel and milk sorbet. Served in a pastry shell of extreme delicacy, barely visible above the dark rich almost solid chocolate filling, with a caramel base the consistency of soft toffee, I managed half. C wouldn’t even try a spoonful, even when I put it to his mouth, like you do a child. Sometimes there are no words. There was no room for anything else although I recall some chocolates. Which I ate.
And with that, it was back to the beach and our neighbours, who managed another three sessions before giving it (and us) a rest. You will not be surprised to discover that we left the next day, a night earlier than planned, but not before I ate a rather excellent chocolate and hazelnut tart, with hazelnut cream, at the very wonderful deli and wine bar, David Brown, on the High St.
I would love to revisit the Sportsman and next time I’d go at lunchtime, do the beach walk and settle in for the tasting menu. Somehow I don’t think I’ll be staying in a fisherman’s hut.