Occasionally, you get the chance to visit a restaurant that not only meets your expectations, but exceeds them. Geoff Campion was lucky enough to experience this when he visited The Sportsman in Seasalter, Kent. In his latest blog, he explores how the self-proclaimed ‘grotty run-down pub by the sea’ has gained national acclaim by putting food centre stage and challenging fine dining misconceptions.
You don’t need a special occasion for a special meal, but it is a good excuse. Thankfully, the (not so) subtle hints I had been dropping to my girlfriend came to fruition in the form of a table at The Sportsman for my birthday – how marvellous.
Once Kent’s best kept secret, the cat is now well and truly out the bag and the pub’s trophy cabinet is bulging, to say the least – it has held a Michelin star since 2008; won Restaurant Magazine’s Restaurant of the Year 2016; won GQ Pub of the Year 2016, and a host of other accolades. But what’s the secret to its success?
Head chef and owner, Stephen Harris, is a self-taught chef who opened the restaurant in 1999 after gaining a loan from his brother – who owned Skint Records and hit gold with Fatboy Slim’s ‘We’ve Come a Long Way Baby’. Stephen champions local produce and has an obsession with masterfully balancing flavour combinations. From the oysters, to the salt – which is taken from the sea and boiled up on site – the entire menu is a glowing endorsement of the rich bounty available in the immediate area.
It is his intrinsic knowledge of ingredients and passion for cooking that led him to receiving the Guild of Food Writers award in 2016 for his weekend articles in The Telegraph. Unfussy experiences and opinions from a chef who knows what he is talking about – worth a read, if you’re not already a regular.
The food was immense. We opted for the daily tasting menu and were pleasantly greeted by a selection of expertly composed dishes. If pushed for a favourite I would have to say the devilishly good – and equally big – piece of Brill with chorizo sauce, asparagus and capers. But that’s only because it would be uncouth to champion the platter of homemade bread and butter – the focaccia was ruddy excellent.
Interestingly, a hot topic of conversation for all who visit The Sportsman is its appearance. While the kitchen exceeds the gastronomic excellence of many celebrated London restaurants, people are besotted with the fact the pub looks, well, like an ordinary pub.
Coming from the Big Smoke, where many new openings joust for differentiation by carving personalities out of soft furnishings and ambiance, it’s refreshing to see a restaurant that lives and dies by what’s on the plate alone. The world would be a better place with more restaurants like The Sportsman.
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