Review: The Sportsman, Kent

The eerily drab Kent coast on a moist, cold November day with the last few leaves dropping from the trees. It’s gloriously Dickensian. The Thames estuary is a huge grey blanket the same colour as the sky and you can’t see across to the other side. The Sportsman doesn’t look like much from the outside; an old white-painted redbrick building in stark isolation with a muddy car park at the front and a cluster of caravan chalets out the back. Inside it’s quite different. A big, airy pub interior painted in warm antique tones with scrubbed wooden tables and comfortable chairs. It’s one of those well-balanced places that hasn’t lost its identity as a pub in spite of being a top-notch dining room.

We went with the tasting menu, and tuck away three delicious oysters to begin with, then a couple of smashing pre-starters. There’s a neat stack of chewy mackerel, glistening bright apple jelly and

an almost treacly dark rye bread. Then there’s a hen’s eggshell filled with smoked eel, poached yolk and topped with horseradish foam. MmmMMMmmm. We settle next into a delicate dish of crab and carrot. A bit unmemorable, to be honest; I always want more of the brown meat in these delicate crab salads. The next starter was delicious pieces of roast partridge, served up with crispy skin on top of a celeriac risotto that tasted exactly – exactly, mind you – of the best kind of cheese and onion crisps. By accident or design, it was one of those charming reminiscence dishes.

Next we enjoyed two very good and very different fish dishes. The first was the bravest of simplicity; a single fillet of slip sole on a plate with a little seaweed butter. The seaweed gave us a strong estuarine tang and the slip sole proved to be pleasantly more dense than the more commonly served varieties. Luverly. The second dish, of brill braised in sherry with local hedgehog fungi, was very good though verging on too rich. That might be me, though – I don’t like my fish too rich (see Gamba, for instance!).

The main was foreshadowed with lovely nuggets of deep-fried lamb neck in breadcrumb, to be dipped in vinegary miny sauce. WANT MORE. The mint sauce stays for the main of roast local lamb, a well-executed dish but (ssh… don’t tell chef) not a patch on the lamb neck nuggets! Our pre-dessert was a little quince lolly with some “cake milk” to dip it in (single cream with, yeah, a distinct cakey taste). I love quince, but for it’s fragrance, and they hadn’t captured that. The bramley apple souffle to finish was delicious, a jolly good and very bright souffle with a blob of salt caramel ice cream to deposit in the top.

I enjoyed the menu at The Sportsman, and I particularly enjoyed the surroundings. At £65 it’s good value for sheer quality of produce and cooking. The wine list is good too; in spite of the Michelin-quality food, the wines are pub priced. If I lived near here, I’d be down far too often!

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