Train + taxi = restaurant
This was a formula I came across when I visited Hof Van Cleve – aka the best restaurant in Belgium – last year. And let me admit if I have to take absolute pain with transports I will end up either love or hate the place. I happened to love Hof Van Cleve. Everything was so right about it.. right enough to justify €50 taxi rides.
Train + taxi (this time the drivers spoke English) = restaurant
This time I felt a little indifferent. Not sure if “indifferent” is too strong a word so please read on. Indifferent about the pilgrimage to The Sportsman.
For those not familiar with the Sportsman, this is a pub-restaurant that is the talk of all foodies for years and has also fetched one Michelin star. It’s situated next to the sea but does not overlook it. Look-wise, this Sportsman is of a rough-looking kind. Imagine a run-down Wayne Rooney when he couldn’t score a goal at World Cup. This worked to lower my expectation..
There are two menus. Tasting menu (about £60 or so for 8 courses or so) and A La Carte. You have to book for early sittings to sample the tasting menu (because it took me 3 hours to finish!!). The A La Carte is a different sort of offering. Refined pub food – hearty and generous from its look but I wouldn’t say it’s at one-star level. CC has blogged about it here. I’d say if you do “train + taxi = restaurant” you should not venture into the realm of the A La Carte..
The tasting menu changes very regularly and depends on the freshest produce the chef fetches from his neighbourhood. I was asked by the friendly hostess if I’d like to see the menu or want it a surprise…. Menu of course. It read, not to my surprise, English. It also shouted that this was a produce-oriented menu. Fish, oyster, fish and fish!! I wouldn’t mind to have another fish as my main course and for desserts.
The nibble. Pickled Herring on bread and butter was forgettable. Not enough pickled flavouring going on for my liking. Those mini spatulas of pork scratching, however, were SENSATIONAL!!!! Crispy and bursting meaty oil in my mouth. Apple and mustard dipping worked to accumulate acidic fruity-ness with masochistic kick. Cooling but aggressive. A gourmet definition of tough love.
Oysters. I’d label them hot&cold. Not that one was hot and the other cold. The hot&cold element was the feature of both plates. First one.. fresh oyster in warm beurre blanc with pickled cucumber and caviar. Plumb oyster. The BB added lush creaminess to it. Salty sea taste from caviar and cucumber refreshing the palate. A memorable dish. Clean and clear flavours. The other one was cooked and served with seaweed butter, jersey cream and rhubarb granita. Interesting but the oyster shrank a bit and lost bounce. Sweet note from the granita.
Bread – red onion focaccia, soda and white – followed. Crusty. Perfectly dense and chewy texture. The butter was homemade and so was the sea salt infused in the butter. Creamy and rich. But, together with the bread, all became too salty. I did finish all the bread though as they were very delicious.
Chilled beetroot soup. Smooth. Not typically super sweet. Subtle hint of vinegary acidity and cooling pleasure. But it did not marvel beyond a great beetroot soup should be. The beetroot and herb tart was a far more superior fix. I recalled the best vegetarian experience at 3-starred Arpege and this can surely rival it. Delicate cubes of perfectly cooked beetroots, herb and cheese in a tart. It crumbled in my mouth. A bit of sweetness, a bit of silky cheese, a bit of aromatic chives, a lot of pleasure!!
Slip sole grilled in seaweed butter. This was the dish I’d die to have again. I had an issue with their homemade salted butter as I found it too salty…
And it was still salty here. But, the fish – the FISH!!!! – was so fresh, moist, fluffy, elegant, perfectly grilled. I smelt it from a good distance. Minimalist beauty calling out “Eat Me!!”. The seaweed infusion made the fish alive and swimming again in my mouth. The bone was itself contorting as if the sole were yet living. I couldn’t rave about it more. It was the most beautiful fish dish I ever came across in a starred restaurant and it boast the chef’s confidence (this chef is called Jim Shave by the way).
NOW YOU LOOK AT IT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
This was followed by braised turbot with smoked roe. Before the fish, Jim came over and gave me a cup of tea. Not an ordinary tea but a fish tea! All transparently green deserving a place in the Emerald City. Made from turbot bone and seaweed. He said the seaweed was his new experiments. I told him so far it worked. This tea, however, only worked half a cup, which I didn’t have a chance to tell him. Warming and with a lot of sea salt flavours. Subtle seaweed taste as he used a different kind to the one in butter. If you closed your eyes, you could easily dream of sandy beach, game arcades and seagulls.
Well, maybe not, seagulls..
The bottom of the cup, however, was Wicked Witch flavoured. Slimy texture you’d easily associate with fish. With a bit more diluting work, it would become the dish to boast.
The turbot itself was tiny.. served with seabeet and sea purslane. The meat was a touch too tough for such a king of fish and underseasoned. The roe pleasantly infused with chilli could have also been smokier and thicker. Not bad but not special enough.
Roast Lamb from Monkshill Farm. First to arrive was lamb belly schnitzel with mint sauce. Smeared with mustard. Crisp perfect. The sauce was ridiculously good. Demerara sugar syrup with the stunning balance of vinegar and mint.
I drank it all up.
There came the lamb. Beautifully pink. Two cuts – rump and shoulder – with garden broad beans, asparagus, carrot and celeraic puree. Again technically perfect. Tender lamb. Delectably bitter taste from the ethereal puree. Sweetness from peas et all. Intense jus. I couldn’t really fault the dish but in the same way it was not overtly inventive and excited me. Oh wait.. there was another shot of mint sauce!!!!!! :-9
The sweetness was well matched.
So I drank up… my other shot.
One of the lovely hostesses asked if I’d like another shot..
*blush with guilt*
Tried so hard to blurt out a “NO!” …
Palate cleanser. Rhubarb sorbet. With layers of fizzy rocks and yoghurt. Refreshing. Then, iced cream cheese and strawberry. Iced curd cream in a shallow marsh of strawberry coolie. Crushed meringue and shortbread crumbs on top. Good taste, good texture. Petit fours arrived at the same minute as my taxi driver. Ate it all in two minutes. The raspberry custard with jasmine-scented oat crumble stood out. I threw the cherries in my bag.
Et voila.. The Sportman!
This surely was a very good experience and I could see why The Sportsman has been much raved about. British food. Perfect British produce. Quirkily deserted location. That alone is a celebration in itself and makes it all worth the “train + taxi = restaurant”. The menu is adequately inventive. It showcases the best of Britain in ways that are not pompous and alienating. To me, the beginning of the meal up until the grilled sole was sensational. The rest – still great – did not deliver at the same level. But, I do feel “indifferent” toward The Sportsman. The strength of this kitchen lies firmly in the produce and it’s very hard to dislike a produce restaurant. Good techniques and a lot of (good) thoughts are materialised in the dishes. But, when comparing The Sportsman to other produce oriented restaurants elsewhere, this is not the meal that changes my life (in the way that Arpege and Noma did).
I am talking without the money equation here.
So, when I bring myself back to the credit card bill, £78 spent for the tasting menu (plus an orange juice and two bottles of water) is indeed a great deal I cannot refuse.
Will I go back?
I will be happy to bring my friends and guests there but I won’t on my own (like this time)…
PS A taxi ride from Whitstable costs £8.50 and the train direct from London Victoria costs about £24 for day return.
My head rating says, “10 out of 10″.
My heart rating says, “8 out of 10″.
tel. 012 2727 3370