The Sportsman (Seasalter, UK) – Give a Man A Few Miles
If someone were to tell you there was a pub, sitting on the mouth of the Thames, with a self-taught chef, serving some of the best food in England (if not Europe), you might respond you’ve heard this song and dance before. Media empires, both large and small, have been made out of trafficking these self-proclaimed hidden gems. Foodies (yes, it’s a terrible word) use them as a social currency to trade and barter; but they often only buy disappointment. So bear with this story when I say, after one visit, The Sportsman, a pub in the middle of nowhere, might be “one of my favorite restaurants in the world.”
Carrots (from the garden)
In these days of “locavore this” and “head to tail that”, The Sportsman occupies a near-impossible spot at these (arguably) ecological and ethical intersections. The restaurant sources most, if not all, of its food from its immediate area. But it does not stop there- almost everything is made in-house, going to such extremes as boiling the backyard sea for its salt, which is then used to cure a leg of ham (which wallowed in the meadows across the road.) And every effort is made to use everything, letting little go to waste, feeding said pig with the scraps from the restaurant. It is a sustainable operation with a burgeoning garden in back. The food and ethos remind me of Eigensinn Farm (near Toronto), but the execution at The Sportsman was markedly better on this visit.
Stephen Harris has some Howard Roark inside of him,1 competing with his inner Michel Bras and Rene Redzepi’s, pursuing his own vision of what it means to own and operate a restaurant emblematic of Seasalter and its history. His commitment to a philosophy, a story about time and place, gives the food meaning.2 It is an appreciation, and wonder, of the environment and its possibilities that makes the food delicious. And it is Stephen’s (and head chef Dan Flavell’s) skill and (obvious) obsessiveness that ensure the meal has few, if any, missteps.
This is a lunch from late June. The tasting menu was arranged in advance and I was “known” but I doubt that matters. In fact, the food being served to other tables off of the a la carte menu looked better.3 Felix Hirsch, A Summer of Innocence (sadly, the summer and/or innocence is over), and A Girl Has to Eat had similar meals. The Ulterior Epicure and Food Snob, the anti-Twitter, had a winter meal for comparison’s sake. What you will read, here and there, is uniform praise.
Oyster with home-made chorizio
The trio of amuses were a strong introduction to the restaurant and its terroir – the land and sea. The oyster’s purity captured the salty and refreshing sea breeze outside. The house-made chorizio’s spiciness provided a familiar partner to the oyster but it also proved to be an interesting contrast in textures and saltiness. The pork scratchings were guilty pleasures – quite crunchy on the outside which gave way to a melting fatty center. The pictured serving is not enough for gluttons. The pickled herring were as good as any in Denmark, bright with a sufficient sour twang. Apple jelly and soda bread accompanied the herring but I preferred it (my fish) solo.
Bread (Soda bread, focaccia, and sourdough), home-churned butter and Seasalter sea salt
Butter and bread, taken for granted at most restaurants by most customers, is rarely treated with the same reverence as the remainder of the meal. When this butter was delivered, its color promised The Sportsman would be different. It had a sweet robustness, a very rich and creamy texture in the mouth, and a nice pinch of salt (from the ocean outside.) There are probably hundreds of great butters throughout the world, particularly across the English Channel in Brittany, but this was among the best I have tried. The breads were as strong as any line-up I can remember, my preference being the slightly sweet soda bread, everyone else the focaccia. The danger here is, of course, eating too much before the meal truly begins.
Stephen delivered this dish and said it was influenced by Manresa’s tidal pool. It is interesting to note the connection, as Manresa has been forging a path similar to The Sportsman. Their styles are different but the underlying theories are similar. The Manresa version is as salty as the sea, whereas this tended toward the herbacious (and somewhat sweet if i recall correctly.) Lemon verbana and fresh-picked herbs from the nearby sea gave it dimension. A fish stock made of the brill (to be served later) was used. It is interesting to see different chefs tackle a similar concept; and it does make one clamor for Stephen to do a Michel Bras inspired salad or a L’Arpege type egg.
Baked oyster with gooseberry granite
If it was not clear that The Sportsman is influenced by the sea, the crab risotto drives the point home with an intense iodine and crab essence. The rice is purposely overcooked, though I did not find its texture overly mushy, to add to the overall creaminess. If this is available, it should be ordered, and savored.
Seasalter Ham cured in December 2007
The Sportsman cares about its food, which was evidently clear from the previous dishes. It goes beyond attention to detail or deliciousness; this was food made with love (yes, that sounds cheesy; and, if you know me, you’ll rarely hear me talk like that!) It should not have been surprising, then, when the ham came out. But reading the synopsis of the ham (the first picture above, a larger size is here if needed) was one of the greatest moments in my restaurant-eating experiences. Here is a guy, as obsessive as they come, taking it to the next level.
While it may not equal a 36-month aged jamon iberico (my main experience with quality hams), it held its own and that is what matters. We need more high-quality local alternatives around the world. The fat coated the mouth while the intensity of the meat lingered. It had a nice sweetness, probably attributable to the pig’s excellent diet.
Brill braised in vin jaune with smoked pork
A pristine fish, obviously line caught, delivered by the morning fishermen. You can taste the sea in a fresh fish, something one will never know shopping at Whole Foods. When fish is this fresh, I am careful not to taint its pristineness with other elements from the plate, a rare case of not trusting the chef. The pork was good by itself, and it infused the fish with its smokiness, but I could not bring myself to eat them together (that perfect fish!) for the duration of the dish. The vin jaune, however, was exemplary and worthy – creamy and balanced – while remaining impossibly light. This fish died, and cooked, with dignity, avoiding the sacrilegious treatment it would have suffered in the pans of most chefs.4
Fried lamb belly
Roast rack of Monkshill farm lamb and braised shoulder
The fried lamb belly was tasty but it felt a little clumsy when compared to the rest of the meal. The braised shoulder would probably do it for most but the texture of braised meats, unless smothered in BBQ sauce or found in a tagine, has never done it for me. The roast lamb, however, was, yet again, exemplary. A very nice piece of meat cooked exactly right – nothing more, nothing less – and, yet, so hard to find.
Elderflowers – Fried and Lolly dipped in cake milk
Light and still creamy, the posset was a nice transition dessert that had a strong vanilla flavor. Fried items at The Sportsman, judging from other blog posts, can be variable but I thought the fried elderflower was well done, if even inadvertently. The batter may have been thick but its lattice work had a wonderful texture in the mouth. Cake milk, while quite sweet, was satisfactory on quite a few levels – viscosity and memorial.
Tart and refreshing, a great finish to an excellent meal. The rhubarb’s tartness was augmented by the surprise inside (which will remain so) – highly unexpected but completely complementary.
It is an improbable restaurant serving an enchanting meal. It is a vision that requires an obsessiveness over every facet of the meal and it is admirable that a restaurant producing everything themselves can deliver so consistently. The details matter and they were rarely overlooked. The Sportsman has one Michelin star but it delivers a solidly two-star experience, if not three at times.
It was within that critical framework that I could say that The Sportsman, on a trip that included noma and Geranium, was my favorite meal of the week. And right up there for the year. And that it gives me a reason to make a connecting flight through London on subsequent European adventures. It is the type of place Anthony Bourdain will visit next year for his show. A myth in the making.
1 – The politics of The Fountainhead are controversial but this is meant as the highest complement, a person pursuing his own vision.
2 – You’ve heard this story before here – it’s a common thread that runs through restaurants as different as Manresa, Ubuntu, L’Arpege, Michel Bras, noma, and much Japanese cuisine.
3 – I don’t know about the lodging options in the area, nor of things to do during the day, but my next visit will include a dinner / lunch, back to back, once ordering a tasting menu, and the other a la carte. The renditions of English staples such as Shepherd’s Pie looked remarkable.
4 – If anything, I am not being dramatic enough!