The Michelin-starred Sportsman in Seasalter, near Whitstable, is a lesson in what the word gastropub ought to mean.
This pub, with a history that dates back to 1642, seems perched on the very edge of the world in the salt marshes of the Thames Estuary. And if you've ever wondered what the lofty title of gastropub really means, it's more than worth making an effort to find this out of the way place to discover for yourself.
The Sportsman, a Michelin-starred paragon of the genre has a menu that raises hearty pub choices - roast belly of pork, crispy duck, mussel and bacon chowder, local shellfish and native oysters (in season), to a high level of refinement while remaining in most diners comfort zone. No "cheffy" plate painting here.
A Historic Tradition
Locavores take note: self-trained chef and co-owner Stephen Harris created his menu from locally available ingredients. Almost all the raw ingredients at the Sportsman come from neighboring farms. In fact, beef, lamb and pork fatten up on salt grass on a Seasalter farm overlooking the Sportsman. Fish and shellfish are landed from the Thames Estuary, right behind the pub and its kitchen garden and polytunnel for fruits and vegetables mean the seasonal menu is virtually picked to order.
And, in case you are wondering about all this local food grown so close to London - there's a long tradition of it in the area.
The farms and fisheries that surround the restaurant are mentioned in the Domesday Book. They were the kitchen gardens of nearby Canterbury Cathedral and their produce probably fed Chaucer's Canterbury pilgrims.
A Warm Pub Atmosphere and Wonderful Food
Inside, a chalk board menu reminds diners that this is a pub, if smartened up a bit and brighter than average.
Decor consists of bare tables and some banquettes along the windows, rough wooden floors and artworks on the walls. The Sportsman has regular exhibitions of work by local professional artists. There are enclosed porches along the front and side that must be lovely for lunch on sunny days.
But, of course, it's the food that you come for and the food is both accomplished and satisfying.
For dinner, my companion and I both chose the same dishes:
- Slip sole (tiny filets of baby Dover sole) were grilled in seaweed butter. I'd never tried this delicately flavored, firm-fleshed white fish before. Prepared this way, it sang of the sea - which went some way to make up for the fact that the chef felt the native Whitstable oysters in September were not yet good enough for his menu.
- Roast pork belly, alternately crispy and unctuous, came on a bed of cabbage and bacon, accompanied by velvety mash. A small dish of a thin, liquid apple sauce was the only off note for me. It seemed redundant up against the gutsy pork dish in a sauce of its own juices.
- A dark purple summer fruit ice cream was dressed with a stripe of rich, thick clotted cream.
We washed it all down with a chewy New Zealand pinot noir. Coffee came accompanied by homemade shortbread and salted chocolate truffles - both very moreish.
We couldn't fault the place. But first we had to find it.
A Word About Finding Seasalter
Seasalter is a hamlet of Whitstable (source of terrific native oysters) which, is itself, a seaside village of Canterbury. As its name suggests, Seasalter was once a place where salt was harvested from the marshes. The Sportsman is only about three miles from Whitstable town center, but if flat roads amid flat landscapes that blend into mud flats and marshes make you nervous, arrive in daylight. That makes the return journey, in the dark, a lot easier. After dark there is no way to tell what lies between the headlights of your car and the lights of Faversham in the distance to the left or the lights of the Isle of Sheppey, across the Swale and Whitstable Bay to the right. When the Sportsman finally comes into view, it gleams like a lighthouse against a black sea.
There's no question that the journey is worth the trouble. In fact, the Sportsman is one of the best reasons to plan an overnight visit to Whitstable that I can think of.
The Nitty Gritty
- Good, real food, full of flavor and gusto
- Friendly pub ambiance
- Informal and relaxed
- Very local ingredients from named suppliers
- A bit isolated
- Restrooms could be smartened up a bit
- Address: The Sportsman, Faversham Road, Seasalter Whitstable Kent CT5 4BP
- Phone: +44 (0)1227 273370, Reservations for lunch and dinner highly recommended
- Open: Tues - Sat, Food noon to 2pm and 7 to 9pm. Bar noon to 3pm and 6 to 11pm; Sun, 12:30 to 2:45pm, Bar noon to 10pm.
- Closed: No food Mon but bar is open noon to 3pm and 6 to 10:30pm
- Prices: Michelin-starred isn't cheap. Expect to pay about £40 to £60 per person (2016 prices) for three courses, coffee and wine. There is a tasting menu for £65 per person and a shorter tasting menu available for groups at £45 per person.
- Visit their website.
As is common in the travel industry, the writer was a guest of the local tourism authority for review purposes. While it has not influenced this review, About.com believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest. For more information, see our Ethics Policy.