I suspect some people who’ve booked a table and made a special journey down from London to eat at this Michelin star gastropub might be disappointed to discover that their destination is a fairly unattractive pub sandwiched between an ugly sea wall and an area of uninspiring marshland. However, as I’ve lived in North Kent for over 70 years I know and love this almost bleak stretch of the coast. It’s a strange area of marsh inhabited by sheep cropping the salt laden grass, large holiday parks with caravans and mobile homes in serried ranks, a cafe and shop, yacht club and a beach of pebbles, shingle, sand and seashells. When the tide is out there’s also lots of mud. To the north northwest, views of the eastern end of the Isle of Sheppey; the white sands at Shellness and the cliff at Warden Point can be seen – sometimes through a heat haze sometimes through mizzle. Before the huge offshore wind farms were built the most exciting things to spot in the distance were the eerie outlines of the Maunsell Forts, built for defence in the Thames Estuary in the Second World War; for some reason these large concrete and iron structures always remind me of War of the Worlds.
Having arrived early for our 1.30 pm booking at The Sportsman at Seasalter between Faversham and Whitstable we sat in the car and watched an enormous flock of starlings, probably thousands in number, landing on the marshland to feed and then rising up in unison to sit on telephone wires – not quite a murmuration although that might have occurred later in the day. We’ve also seen Marsh Harriers nearby and lots of waders when the tide is out.
This renowned restaurant is still a Shepherd Neame pub, although when we entered we saw a sign saying the bar was closed but it did open towards the end of lunchtime restaurant service and I saw two walkers come in to buy drinks. Run by chef Stephen Harris and his brother it maintains a very good reputation, so good that it’s taken us a long time to get a table; we’ve tried unsuccessfully on several occasions over the years but this time we were lucky and it was my birthday present, although we didn’t go on the actual birth date as that coincided with Mothering Sunday. We were welcomed and shown to our table – the last of the only two vacant ones – in one of the open plan `rooms` behind the conservatory that runs along two sides of the building. Inside the decoration is simple – painted wood and a seaside theme in keeping with its position. It was an all female team front-of-house and they were excellent. We were never rushed nor kept waiting too long – everything ran smoothly with the passing staff just keeping an eye on the progress at each table and bringing out the next course as required. There’s a different menu each day and once I’d had a chance to look at the menu I was given advice about the amount of cream in the various dishes as my husband had told them in advance that I am unable to eat too much cream. There is only one menu on offer but it is a 5 course tasting menu and each of the courses has a choice of four different dishes. I won’t list everything on the menu (I’ve photographed a copy of that day’s to give an idea of the sort of food to expect) but in addition to the 5 courses we had what the menu called `snacks` but which some restaurants would call `amuses bouches` – three different delicious tiny bites – Jerusalem artichoke puree and an artichoke crisp, crispy bacon with cods roe on top and smoked eel on laverbread. I then chose the poached rock oysters; this was somewhat brave of me because I don’t like raw oysters, but poached and served with a sauce, pickled cucumber and Avruga caviar they were pretty good; I’m glad I tried them but I’m still not a lover of molluscs. My next course was slip sole grilled in espelette butter, a slightly smoky/spicy flavour (though I was disappointed it wasn’t the seaweed butter version) then a main of pork loin and for dessert I had passion fruit souffle with chocolate icecream. We also had a pre-dessert mini dessert of chai tea panna cotta with pina colada sorbet but as I couldn’t have the panna cotta I had a larger portion of the sorbet, which was lovely. And at the end of the meal we had tiny melt in the mouth chocolate macarons. The Sportsman is unpretentious. the food wonderful, the service perfect; and I’d love to go back again one day.
We finished our meal just before 4.00 pm (lunch service ends at 4.30 pm) climbed up onto the seawall and walked a short distance in a howling gale to look down at the garden where herbs, vegetables and fruit are grown for use in the restaurant. Stephen Harris also likes to use foraged plants and sources most ingredients locally. But the wind was too much for us to walk along the Saxon Shore Way on top of the seawall so we turned round and walked towards Whitstable along the beach out of the wind for a short distance before returning to the car. We had driven to The Sportsman but noticed that quite a few people arrived in taxis, having travelled to Faversham by train that day because the road was closed between Seasalter and Whitstable, the other nearby railway station. It’s certainly worth the journey.