The Sportsman Tasting Menu – DIY

In short time, the (Western) food world has seemingly switched allegiances from molecular gastronomy to local foraged DIY (do-it-yourself), culminating in the crowning of noma as the world’s number one restaurant.1 Molecular food was always controversial but its legacy2 may be its insistence on challenging forms and techniques while holding nothing sacred. And in a delicious twist of irony, one could argue the molecular approach paved the way for the current locavore and DIY uber-trends in fine-dining – discarding “luxury” ingredients, taking to the fields and forest for new expressions, and mining history for forgotten seeds, breeds, and recipes – for there is always something new in the old.

the impossible tart
a manifestation of English humor I suppose

The new local, foraged food, DIY aesthetic lends itself to a wider restaurant footprint; where molecular generally needed the trappings of high-end dining3, local DIY cooking lends itself just as easily to casual restaurants. The two begin to share a common language where there wasn’t much of one before – the tale of the carrot.4 Interesting, new dishes can be made from weeds, seeds, saps, and previously thrown-away parts – relatively cheap sources that expand the range of possibilities. The endless quest for lost cookbooks, traditions, and techniques inspire new interpretations of classic fare.5 People are making their own visions of food – ideas not always profitable in proper restaurants – in accessible and affordable formats. The judgement of artistic expression is no longer limited to just Michaelangelos. However, every chef that splatters food on a plate is not a Jackson Pollock – a pickling, curing, foraging, hunting, hanging, smoking celebration does not a chef make.

Foraging, or building gardens, was as much about passion as product for the first wave – with that vision, enthusiasm, and obsessive attention to detail translating into higher quality. With everyone embarking on similar projects, there will be new critical considerations. Does a garden make one a gardener? Will the market value a more intimate relationship with the land over a higher-quality product? Does “we have a garden” or “we forage” become mere marketing slogans, similar to the endless “we source from X miles” taglines found on every new restaurant opening today? One only has to look at the very sorry state of restaurant bread, and butter, to see that a DIY approach has an obvious serious pitfall – quality.

Pork scratchings
Oh so good

And that is one of the reasons why Stephen Harris is so very special – there is a focus and vision so strong that even small disappointments do not deter his ultimate expression – a pub, casual in every respect, sitting on the ocean, serving serious food that can only be produced in one tiny spot on Earth- The Sportsman at Seasalter – doing (nearly) everything themselves – since 1999.

pickled herring
great contrast to the pork

After last year’s surprising meal, as much of a revelation as noma in every respect, a return visit was planned with the quick Paris trip. The Sportsman is too good not to include on a European itinerary. On the last visit, the a la carte items being served to other guests looked better than the tasting menu dishes – which, of course – necessitated two meals on this go – a tasting menu dinner and an a la carte lunch. It is a great strategy for understanding the restaurant.

The Sportsman is very comfortable with itself – it is what it is and it only competes with its own ideals. The rustic nature of the pictures below belie its quality – sure, they look good enough, but they taste so much better. There are no linens, a chalkboard serves as menu, and condoms cost a pound in the bathroom – that’s how it does.6 Sitting in The Sportsman, on the eve of a humid summer day, cold beer in hand, ocean breeze drafting through, is one of my favorite dining experiences in the world.

Many dishes were shared with last year’s tasting menu – the complete menu is printed below.7

Mushroom carpaccio and lobster

Still maintaining its raw sweetness, for it was barely cooked, the lobster’s texture provided an interesting contrast to the mushrooms – chewy and crunchy. It was a great dish to start the menu, forcing the chew, and pairing the evening ocean breeze with the plate.

Salmagundy
if Michel Bras lived in Seasalter…

If one had to name a most influential dish for our modern times, it would be hard to best Michel Bras’s Gargouillo. In my last post, I mused how wonderful it might be to experience a Stephen Harris take on the popular dish, given his obvious Bras ethos; in the comments, “Paul” said that it exists. With the reservation, a request was made to include it on the menu. And it was one of my favorite interpretations anywhere, largely on the strength of the textural contrasts between the cooked, barely cooked, and raw vegetables with each bite. The beet sitting atop had tremendous intensity – quite special.

Slip Sole grilled in Seaweed Butter
Seasalter, Japan?

Have you ever tasted the ocean in a piece of fish? This sole was very firm; so firm that I suspect some people would not like it, despite its tremendous quality. It took a bite or two to get adjusted to its texture. Not since Tokyo have I tasted the sea after cooking fish – a minimal dish that relied completely on the quality of its product and deft cooking. Seaweed butter – seaweed from the beach a few feet away, dairy from cows a few miles away, and the butter is churned in-house – dedication.

Home-cured Ham
DIY? harvest salt from nearby ocean, cure ham, & wait 18 months

Braised Turbot with Smoked Roe sauce
fine dining can still be decadent

Turbot, with its gelatinous goodiness, was unusually upstaged by the smoked roe sauce. Its smoky brininess did an admirable job of cutting the turbot texture, leaving a sensational mouthfeel that lingered. The smoke also lingered long after everything was swallowed. Deliciousness – sometimes it’s lost – but dishes like this necessitate the old soaking the bread maneuver.

There is not much more to say – The Sportsman – go.

- chuck

1 – Yes, it’s a controversial list with suspect voting policies, but there’s no denying its influence. And noma is certainly deserving of the award.

2 – I’m not writing that it’s “dead” – just that it’s already left an impact. I’m also fully aware that many of these “local” restaurants are employing molecular techniques; in fact, I’d argue, the better ones have learned how to seamlessly integrate these techniques to make the food “more” natural and flavorful!

3 – The food was more “intellectual”, which does not equate to a quick 1-2 dish meal. Likewise, the propensity for small bites and experiments, lended itself to a longer tasting menu format.

4 – An original molecular gastronomy manifesto point by Ferran Adrià – question the convention of luxury ingredients. Daniel Patterson also wrote a nice essay last year about it. (And, yes, that is why my octopus is holding a carrot)

5 – My favorite story here, of which I’m sure there are many, is Sean Brock’s decision to use olive oil in his new casual restaurant Husk, serving Southern fare. He dug into history and found that Thomas Jefferson, of all people, had olive trees and used them to produce olive oil. Suddenly, there was an inspiration for using olive oil, seemingly out of its element, in Southern dishes.

6 – Apologies to The Wire – “that’s how we do”

7 – The complete menu read:

Pork Scratchings

Bread, home-churned butter with Seasalter salt

Mushroom carpaccio and lobster

Salmagundy

Slip sole grilled with seaweed butter

Seasalter Ham cured in Sep 2008

Braised turbot wit smoked roe sauce

Roast saddle of Monkshill Farm lamb

Fruit salad and verbana ice cream

Rhubarb sorbet

  • http://blindtastingclub.net Alex

    Great Post Chuck! For a big fan of Gargouillou, there is also German Chef Klaus Erfort serving an interpretation. Check it out here http://blindtastingclub.net/?p=13 . Cheers.

  • Matt Mark

    Agreed, always on the radar when going through London.

    Now if I can manage to get there on a Tuesday to Saturday to get a/the tasting menu :) The Salmagundy sounds awesome.

    Alex, I’m glad you mentioned Erfort – his name came up in a conversation during our last trip. Will earmark that one.

    Matt

  • http://www.thewanderingfoody.com thewanderingfoody

    Yum, the food looks amazing, especially the mushroom carpaccio and lobster and the slipsole. Did the seawater taste in the slipsole come from the seaweed butter, or from the fish itself?

    Glad you reviewed a place in England! I’ll be sure to visit.

  • http://www.foodforthoughtmiami.com Frodnesor

    (1) Great review and really wonderful sounding food. Need to figure out when I can get there.

    (2) Don’t sell yourself short – you do use plenty of footnotes!

    (3) “I’m also fully aware that many of these “local” restaurants are employing molecular techniques; in fact, I’d argue, the better ones have learned how to seamlessly integrate these techniques to make the food “more” natural and flavorful!” – I completely agree.

  • chuckeats

    alex – that looks pretty good – will do some more research

    wanderingfoody – the seaweed butter gave it more of an umami quality – there’s no mistaking pristine seafood of that caliber when you have it

    frodnesor – thanks and yes, you need to go

  • http://zwampen.wordpress.com zwampen

    Think that the Seasalter was the last year´s best meal?!
    So simple, so delicious so just great food! Wonderful pictures and great read.

  • http://twitter.com/1mandabear Manda Bear

    Can I have the home cured ham to go please? I’ll pay the extra luggage fee for it?

  • stephen

    Thanks for the great review chuck! A few questions. Do you know if the mushrooms were foraged, and if so what kind? Is that an egg in the Salmagundy? How did the ham rank? Was it at all different from last time?

  • chuckeats

    stephen, i’d assume “yes” on the mushrooms. yes, that’s an egg. and there is a clue to the ham earlier in the post – very different ;-)

  • Nancy

    I am re-reading this review as I plan a trip to London in July. We want to include the Sportsman on this trip, and I was curious to know if, after comparing a tasting and an a la carte approach, which you would recommend. Many thanks in advance.

  • chuckeats

    Hi Nancy, I like tasting menus so that would be my recommendation – if you can get it. I think they only serve them on the weekend. Otherwise, don’t hesitate to get ALC.

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