Few months ago I had the pleasure to go on a week end trip to visit the superb cathedral of Canterbury in Kent an hour from London. It was obviously impossible for me not to find a really nice table to enjoy some really great food by the coast. I’d been trapped in the middle of long period of snowy days of December 2010. However, I think this has been one of the best moments of service and food I’be experienced over five hours at the Sportsman*.
From Canterbury, just 20 minutes away by cab, Seasalter is a seaside settlement near the lovely Kentish village of Whitstable. A really nice bay stretches along the channel coast from Whitstable to Seasatler and I have to say, I have never seen so many oyster shells in my life. We decided to walk from Whistable along the shingle beach to the restaurant, being lead by this new system, we had our smart-phones on. We thought it would be a 35 minutes journey and it has turned into the longest and most exciting adventure I have had for a long time. To make the story short, as this blog is about food, after walking for 30 minutes, it happened that we ended up walking down the beach on one of the most snowy days in the UK in December 2010. Not just nice and lovely snow, but literally we were trapped in a massive blizzard. At this time it was impossible to walk any more, we were literally covered by snow and it was impossible to see more than one meter. We luckily saw a local pub on the horizon because of its blue painted walls, called the blue Blue Anchor! And it was there that we experience the most excellence of the starred restaurant starts. With no hope of being able to carry on our walk under the tempest, I decided to call the restaurant – being already 30 minutes late. Explaining the situation, I’m not sure any restaurant would have done that for customers, but in 10 minutes the owner of the restaurant (one of the 2 brothers running the “gastro-pub”) come to pick us up directly at the location. “What a start for a really nice food moment”.
I have to say, I think I think that I had the staff of the restaurant at least 10 times. They must have been expecting us for a long time “the London tourists”. I wanted to book the tasting menu, but unfortunately and paradoxically, this one is not available over the weekend. I mean, a Michelin Pub must be more busy over the week with business lunches. But that where you can expect a lot from those outside London restaurant. Service, help, quality and “gourmet”.
Being along the Channel coast, what could I we expect? Certainly simplicity and the most fishy experience ever. When you arrive – beside the amount of snow falling for the last 30 minutes and coating the land of amazing white – you can already feel this lovely seaside atmosphere. From the seaside you can overlook to the stunning facade of the pub, white and glossy, that you can’t even miss, coated with this huge amount of snow. When you get inside, you just simply feel at home in few minutes. The “chaos” created by the weather has certainly helped well to create an overwhelming welcoming from the waitress waiting for us at the bar.
Then here we start our experience of food. As I said before we didn’t have the chance to order the tasting menu as the pub was not serving it over the weekend. Anyhow, from a starred restaurant you can expect a really high level of service, hence weren’t really surprise when the front of house told us that the chef was informed that we wanted to try some of the tasty dishes, he had prepared some extras courses to add to our menu to make us feel happy.
Here, all is about the flavour, the ingredients and the quality; no glitter or diamonds. Just the pleasure of having really good food with really good service. Since 2008, chef patron Stephen Harris has held one Michelin star and shared his love of simple food cool to perfection.
Let’s start by the “amuse bouche” platter
The composition was extremely simple but fairly well balanced. This was a simple duet of Pickled Herring cubes build in layers of really soft buttermilk soda bread, nice cream with sea-salt butter, apple purée and the Herring layer. Unexpected combination I would tell you but I have to say it works perfectly. The butter and the soda bread bring together the softness needed to reduce the very fishy flavor of the fish and smoky Herring . In essence this is simple, but the choice of the four ingredients matches to perfection. Easy to prepare at home for cocktail parties – I would recommend it. Then on the side some anchovy flavored bread crouton slices to taste with a very vinegary whole mustard vinaigrette. This one on the opposite is exploding in your mouth, like a sea wave. If you don’t like sea food, then pass your way ;o)
I chose something quite extravagant on the menu to start with, simple again, but very appealing by the sound of it. I’m a fan of oysters (as any French people I guess), but naturally and usual just eating them raw with just lemon juice or really nice shallots vinegar, even sometime Tabasco. I’ve tested the exquisite oyster “a la nage” from a previous sublime eponymous restaurant by Guy Savoy. What to expect, some really nicely presented poached oysters (3), covered with a very creamy and thick butteries hollandaise covering a “julienne” of cucumber and topped with some avruga caviar. Another simple creation, example of beauty and dressing. The oysters been poached in the oyster “water” i.e. the water inside the shell. Very quickly not to overcook them and keep the texture right. The set up is very cute and minimal. From the taste, I would say you can’t really taste the cucumber, as the hollandaise is rich and strong, however you’ll notice the fishiness of the avruga caviar (not to be mixed up with real caviar).
One of my favorite fish……
When I saw that fish on the menu, I couldn’t resist. Not many fish can compete for me, certainly Turbot, but i’ve to say Ray (or skate fish) is one of my favorite, and even more when it’s cooked with a “beurre noisette”. Perfection would be the perfect description of this slight diversion around the classical “Raie beurre noisette” which usually is prepared with capers. But here the chef prepared it covered with cockles and used a sherry vinegar to “deglazed” the fried pan. Overall this is us for me the first ever experience of Ray “another style” and I would say it “rocks”. The balance is perfect, the sherry vinegar is not too sweet (as sweetness doesn’t works with skate fish I’m afraid), and the cockles bring this sparkle of deep sea taste to counter balance the rich buttery dark sauce. After all this is how you recognize the talent of a real chef, by being able to go off safe tracks of classicism but at the same time being able to re-invent a classic. Well done.
Relaxation by the fireplace!!
To finished our wonderful food experience we’ve been suggested to enjoy our dessert by the fireplace (near the xmas tree as well – dangerous isn’t it?). Then when dropping the “petit fours” plate on the table, the waitress had a big sneaky smile asking us to tell her how we found the “surprise” in the nice sorbet. At this time I do remember having a really big smile as well…almost like a kid waiting for a Xmas gift. And talking about childhood, I was not so far indeed. What an amazing remembering by eating the first spoon….what a delight moment…totally fully exciting once I felt over my tongue the fizzy effect of Space Dust candy popping effect. This was just superb and very surprising. In two seconds we remember the candy we used to get afterschool when we were young. Space Dust here we are…..I wanted more and more….pop pop pop.
Compare to that, the really nice short bread cake and the little crème brulée pot were very fade, but I’ve to say nice.
Then, after more than four hours at Sportsman Pub, we totally forgot that outside the blizzard never stopped, and therefore we had to find how to come back to Canterbury. Hopefully, again, the waiters been all dedicated, certainly even more because of the weather condition. Like “happy VIPs” the crew offer us to drive us back to the rail station in Whistable. Nice way to end up our foodie journey.
Overall a superb experience. I will certainly go back to the Sportsman, but of course during summertime, to avoid any blizzard experience, and better enjoy the beach view on the front sea side.
I would recommend without any doubt
Chef : Stephen Harris Faversham Road Seasalter, Whitstable CT5 4BP, UK ++441227273370 The Sportsman Seasalter Whitstable MY RATINGS : FOOD = 7/10 DECORATION/AMBIANCE = 6/10 SERVICE = 8/10 NOISE = 10/10