It was a slip sole, just a slip sole, slim and elegant, glistening with seaweed butter. No sauce, no veg, no micro-herbs, nothing to distract from the individual beauty of the fish. The flesh was taut and dense, almost muscular. Its flavour had a pure sweetness. The butter carried a faint nutty richness through which the seaweed ran, the lightest seasoning of vegetal iodine and rockpool. How is it that something so plain and so singular can be so brilliant? It was a kind of distilled essence of fish and cooking. It set the mouth and brain alight. It takes a rare chef to reduce a dish to such bare essentials and yet convince that that’s all you need. But then Stephen Harris is a rare chef.
It’s about four or five years since I last went to The Sportsman, tucked away behind a dyke on the north Kent coast halfway between Whitstaple and Faversham. In those years, Stephen and The Sportsman’s reputation have grown. It has acquired a Michelin star, awards galore and column inches by the meter. In spite of such success, The Sportsman has not changed, and I am all the happier for it. The Sportsman seems to me to combine the best qualities of a pub with those of a classic French buffet de la gare. There’s something about the red window frames, and the way the windows, themselves, are set to flood the plain, unfussy interior with natural light, something about the scrubbed bare tables, their spacing, the sense of decency rooted in the locality, its history, its people and its produce. It’s a place of classic virtues and contemporary vision.
Mr. Harris’s cooking may be rooted absolutely in that place, and it’s immediate surrounding area, which supplies all his primary ingredients, but it is not stuck in the past. At the end of lunch came a pudding that was at the opposite end of the technical spectrum from the slip sole. Warm chocolate mousse with salted caramel and milk sorbet hints at a level of technical sophistication. The reality was as sublime as the slip sole had been in its very different way.
First there is a chocolate mousse so ineffably light that it needed to be tethered to the plate. It was slowly liquid, too, falling from the spoon like cream. It was warm, just a degree or two above blood temperature. And finally it had the purity of flavour unmasked by any sugar that gave full range to the layered, minerality of the chocolate. Those cozy,soft, billows were anchored to the plate and to a wider sense of pudding delight by the salted caramel and milk sorbet, adding notes of sweetness, saltiness and mellow dairy. It’s not often you get a glimpse of Paradise for £6.95.
Ok, that’s a bit over the top, but not much. That specific level of lustre and beauty can only be achieved through the smart use of contemporary cooking technology and techniques, and illustrates the point that Stephen Harris is no fundamentalist or Luddite, but a chap with a sure touch, a great understanding of pleasure and an open mind.
What else did Bob & I have? Poached oysters with a splash of beurre blanc and shreds of pickled cucumber; pork terrine; roast Monkshill farm lamb, Waterham Farm roast chicken with bread sauce and gravy; and cream cheese ice cream, pear puree, meringue and ginger cake crumbs; half a bottle of Chablis, a bottle of Fleurie, a couple glasses of calvados apiece. Three hours and bit hours of easy chat and gossip, camaraderie and comfort. A bill for £140, half of which was the drink. I mean, really, what price simple perfection?
The Sportsman Faversham Road Seasalter Whitstable Kent CT5 4BP
Tel 01227 273370