The Sportsman, Kent

Faversham Rd


Whitstable CT5 4BP


The Food:

Fresh oysters with caviar

Slip Sole grilled in seaweed butter

Cured trout fillet with rhubarb granita and seaweed

Braised wild seabass fillet with crab vinaigrette

Strawberry and custard tart with strawberry ice cream

The Wines:

2017 Cédric Bouchard-Roses de Jeanne Blanc de Noirs Les Ursules 93
2011 Domaine Guy Roulot Meursault Clos des Bouchères 1er Cru 91
2004 Emidio Pepe Trebbiano d’Abruzzo 91
2010 Domaine Guffens-Heynen Pouilly-Fuissé Tris des Hauts des Vignes 94
2004 Clos Rougeard Saumur Champigny Les Poyeux 93
1987 Lafleur Pensées de Lafleur 88
1970 Léoville Barton 85
2001 La Conseillante 94
1978 Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe Châteauneuf-du-Pape 93
1981 Château de Beaucastel Châteauneuf-du-Pape 90?
2017 Domaine Duroché Gevrey-Chambertin Lavaux Saint-Jacques 1er Cru      93+
2005 Domaine Denis Mortet Gevrey-Chambertin Mes Cinq Terroirs 92
1990 Domaine Bruno Clair Morey-Saint-Denis En La Rue de Vergy 87

When I was a child, every Friday night my family had fish ‘n chips with nan and grandad in Southchurch. Visiting grandparents aside, I always looked forward to the car journey home along the esplanade between the Southend Pier and Chalkwell. Nose pressed against glass, I would peer out of the back car window and gaze across the estuary to the Kent coastline, lit up like a huge funfair. My fertile imagination envisaged some kind of a futuristic world that became illuminated at night and disappeared during the day. Instead of a scene from Bladerunner, I was actually mesmerized by the unsightly Grain Power Station that belched noxious smoke from one of the tallest chimneys in Europe and surrounding oil refineries. It took a few years to realize that this imaginary world lived inside my head. To this day, the north-facing Kent shoreline seems so near, yet so far, an unexplored mysterious part of southern England. It’s always been part of the background, yet I have never visited since there has never been a bridge. Even the power station was mothballed and demolished several years ago, its chimney blown up in spectacular fashion. Eyesore removed.

The Sportsman exterior

So, what was the point of my schlep to North Kent in June this year? Simply, it is the location of a restaurant that has been on my “must visit” list for years, one whose reputation enticed several gastronomes, including novelist-cum-wine writer, Jay McInerney, to journey out to the middle-of-nowhere and dine at The Sportsman.

The Sportsman was opened by self-taught chef, Whitstable-born Stephen Harris in 1999. It stands alone on a wind-battered patch of Kent near Seasalter - a maritime name if ever there was one. I caught a train to Faversham and hopped in a taxi outside the station, the local cab company surely doing brisk business ferrying diners on the last stage of their pilgrimage. They’ll drop you outside a field of grazing sheep, the air thick with salt from the Thames, hidden behind an earthen berm. Alternatively, many walk from Faversham or Whitstable along the coast, probably the healthiest option with all that nourishing sea air.

Banish ideas of some swanky restaurant with freshly-ironed tablecloths, waiters in starched shirts and a maître d’ who’s greeted customers since the Boer War. The Sportsman is a slightly ramshackle inn that can trace its roots back to 1642 when the surrounding land was owned by the archbishop of Canterbury. It was given a lick of paint and turned into a casual gastropub without airs or graces and yet has deservedly held a Michelin star since 2008. The place is couched in a rural atmosphere, far away from the city’s hustle and bustle, a retreat from the stress of daily life. The inside décor is not far removed from a country boozer with worn wooden floors, a small bar and wooden chairs that you could find in a second-hand furniture shop. There’s a brigade of young, friendly waiting staff milling about, taking orders and politely turning away anyone that foolishly did not reserve a table two or three months in advance. Harris offers a five-course menu with a couple of options for each course that are based around meticulously-sourced local ingredients.

Fresh oysters with caviar

We had to begin with a round of fresh oysters with caviar, of course, sourced from estuarine waters nearby, presented on a wooden box of cockleshells. These were exquisite with just the right amount of tang, the caviar offering perfect salinity without overpowering the bivalve.

Next came Harris’s signature slip sole grilled in seaweed butter that Harris churns himself. Of course, I have eaten this many times before, namely Noble Rot’s take on the dish, as Harris has been their executive chef from the beginning. The butter is magnificent, less spicy than the Noble Rot version, the seaweed flavour stronger, not unlike Japanese nori. The fish itself was cooked to absolute perfection.

Slip Sole grilled in seaweed butter

Given our location, I kept my choices pescatarian. The cured trout fillet with rhubarb granita and seaweed was the standout dish. The fish was so moist and flavoursome, glistening on the plate, the granita bracingly fresh and beautifully infused with the rhubarb.

Cured trout fillet with rhubarb granita and seaweed

The braised wild seabass fillet with crab vinaigrette, which was actually another starter course, was much subtler in flavour compared to the trout; the texture of the fish was just wonderful, meaty and firm yet flaking away in your knife, the crab vinaigrette lending acidic bite.

Braised wild seabass fillet with crab vinaigrette

The strawberry and custard tart with strawberry ice cream was as good as it sounds. I could not fault it any way, shape or form. I would have ordered a second, but I was being well-behaved.

The short wine list is well-priced and well-chosen. As one of the rare breeds of chefs that have a passion for wine, they are also amenable to BYO, though I would be courteous if permitted and order one or two from their list. All these wines were served blind in pairs.

Strawberry and custard tart with strawberry ice cream

We began with the 2017 Blanc de Noirs Les Ursules from Cédric Bouchard-Roses de Jeanne, a 2021 disgorgement. This offers a discrete but complex array of scents with fleeting aromas of Japanese yuzu and lemon verbena, even a hint of rosewater in the background. The palate is beautifully balanced with unerring harmony; it’s not intense, yet elegant with just the right amount of bitterness on the finish to keep you on your toes. Elegant and poised, this is drinking beautifully. Next, the 2011 Meursault Clos des Bouchères 1er Cru from Domaine Guy Roulot served from magnum. This has lovely definition on the nose, real mineralité unfolding from the glass with touches of lemon thyme, truffle oil and light grilled almond aromas. The palate is very poised and precise, understated at first yet builds with aeration. Whilst I would not rank it amongst Jean-Marc Roulot’s finest creations, missing the sophistication of his very best, this 12-year-old Meursault is perhaps at its peak and should continue to drink well for another 15-20 years.

The 2004 Trebbiano d’Abruzzo from Emidio Pepe is poured blind and shows slight turbidity in the glass. The nose has a little oxidation, roasted walnuts mixed with sea spray, beeswax scents and a hint of kelp seaweed. The palate is medium-bodied with a bracing line of acidity and arresting bitterness on the finish that might be off-putting to some. Personally, I appreciate the uncompromising nature of this Trebbiano, almost penetrating in intensity, and as it approaches 20 years of age, I can imagine it offering another dozen years of drinking pleasure. The 2010 Pouilly-Fuissé Tris des Hauts des Vignes from Domaine Guffens-Heynen is one of Jean-Marie Guffen’s rare old birds, one that I have not encountered before. It has a very classy bouquet with yellow plum, orange pith, crushed limestone and a discrete linseed note. The palate is lively on the entry, introducing an effervescent Pouilly-Fuissé that is lent tension by the tang of bitter lemon. It delivers impressive precision and feels reassuringly persistent on the finish. This is essentially Guffens firing on all cylinders.

Moving on to the reds, we began with two Cabernet Francs, one from the Loire and the other from Bordeaux. The 2004 Saumur-Champigny Les Poyeux from Clos Rougeard has an entrancing nose with perfumed red cherry and crushed strawberry fruit, hints of oxtail and black truffle emerging with time and developing a Bordeaux-like scent, which is not totally unsurprising given the Cabernet Franc in question. The palate is medium-bodied with exquisite balance and a taut line of acidity but marked by a salinity that revitalises the senses. I notice a touch of menthol with time as it fans out gloriously on the finish. At its peak now, but this Saumur-Champigny will give another 20 years’ drinking pleasure. It was mischievously paired with another Cabernet Franc, a Pomerol that I have not drunk for 15-odd years.

We then moved on to Claret, and I wish we hadn’t since both bottles of Bordeaux négociant-bottled Palmer, the 1947 and 1949, had been acquired from a trader that immediately set my alarm bells ringing. Sure enough, the Margaux looked like toilet water and tasted even worse. The 1987 Pensées de Lafleur is the maiden release, a vintage when Jacques Guinaudeau bravely decided that he would not release any Grand Vin. So, this is ostensibly the 1987 Lafleur and not a separate bottling from part of their vineyard like subsequent vintages. It offers candied orange peel on the nose, quite high-toned with blackberry and raspberry, becoming savoury and tertiary with time. The palate has moderate complexity, a little overawed by the Clos Rougeard served alongside, though with a fresh, if slightly attenuated finish. It’s a fascinating Pomerol, one I would choose to drink over the next five years since it’s beginning to look a bit ragged.

Next came a 1970 Léoville Barton. Predating Anthony Barton, this was not an auspicious era for one of my favourite Saint-Julien estates. With rusty old nails on the nose and a touch of chlorophyll, this lacks the cohesion of its peers. The palate is better with decent weight, surprisingly sweet (maybe chaptalized?) fruit, nice balance, yet far away from what you would call a complex wine. I wonder if there are superior examples out there. After a precarious run, the 2001 La Conseillante was as a shoo-in. It has a seductive mélange of red and black fruit, those hints of truffle and white pepper coming through, youthful and brushing off its 21 years effortlessly. The palate is medium-bodied with fine-boned tannins, plenty of crisp black fruit laced with sage and still offering that cheeky soupçon of curry powder on the persistent finish. This is now reaching its peak and is just a lovely Pomerol.

The most intriguing pair came from the Southern Rhône. The 1978 Châteauneuf-du-Pape from Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe is the oldest vintage that I have tasted. It has a fresh and enticing bouquet, dark berry fruit, black truffles, thyme and autumn bonfire smoke, a touch of brettanomyces lending a feral element, yet never occluding the terroir expression or fruit, just “dancing with it”. The palate is very well balanced and defined with a wonderful line of acidity, perhaps nowadays a tad meaty with age, yet it opens and clarifies in the glass, its hung game/saddle leather note becoming more pronounced. Superb! The infamous 1981 Châteauneuf-du-Pape from Château de Beaucastel is certainly not the most bretty example that I have encountered, maybe just a little tired on the nose compared to the 1978 Télégraphe. The palate is much better with roasted chestnut and game infusing the leather black fruit and displaying tremendous depth on the finish. Bottles do vary from one to the other, hence the question mark against my score.

Moving to the Côte d’Or, my bottle of 2017 Gevrey-Chambertin Lavaux Saint-Jacques 1er Cru from Domaine Duroché probably ought to have been poured prior to the Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Nevertheless, it has a lovely, nuanced nose, perhaps just beginning to close up, with touches of Earl Grey infusing the red fruit, quite tart on the palate, and as Pierre Duroché’s wines are wont to do, blossoming and cohering in the glass. Mortet’s 2005 Gevrey-Chambertin Mes Cinq Terroirs, which was vinified by Arnaud Mortet alongside his father before his untimely passing, might well be the over-performer of the lunch. Dark berry fruit, hints of Seville orange marmalade and black tea on the nose, this is beautifully defined and gains vigour in the glass. Quite powerful on the palate, in keeping with Denis Mortet’s and the vintage’s style, it has structure and grip, yet comes armed with unerring purity and succulence on the finish. It’s drinking beautifully now, but do give it an hour’s decant. A testament to a much-missed vigneron. Finally, the 1990 Morey-Saint-Denis En La Rue de Vergy from Domaine Bruno Clair offers ripe black cherries, raisin and cherry liqueur on the nose, perhaps reflecting the growing season more than the terroir. The palate is sweet and viscous, almost Rhône-like with sage and truffle notes towards its plush, yet uncomplicated finish that is almost a bit flabby. Drink bottles soon.

With lunch drawing to its conclusion, it was time to call our taxis to return us to civilisation. I first heard about The Sportsman not long after it opened from a local friend, and it had only taken a couple of decades to visit. Thankfully, it did not disappoint. This is cooking where the chef wisely takes a back seat and allows the ingredients do all the talking. In another’s hands, the dishes might be tarted up, but then they would have lost something. Likewise, the slight shabbiness of The Sportsman is all part and parcel of what makes it special. If you want to see a bit of rural Kent, then it is certainly worth the train journey down this way, and indeed, some are known to pre-order a taxi all the way from the capital. Maybe the neon-lit fantasy land of my childhood never existed, but at least part of the world is dishing up fantastic cuisine. 

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