Friday 2 March 2012

Tasting Menu at The Sportsman

Last Friday had finally arrived; my day off with my husband to drive down to the Sportsman in Kent and enjoy their famous tasting menu! We had been to the Sportsman a few years ago for my birthday, but could only go on a Saturday, when they don't actually serve the tasting menu. So they did their best to give us a few little samples along with the A la Carte, but it wasn't the full tasting menu. The A la Carte meal there was fantastic - if a little overwhelmingly filling! So we decided to go back on a weekday and try the tasting menu to compare!

The Sportsman is located on the North coast of Kent, near Whitstable, in Seasalter. We got there early, which is a rarity in itself, so we decided to go for a walk on the beach to work up an appetite. Walking back towards the Sportsman and looking at the building from the outside you think nothing of it - it looks like your average countryside pub in need of a new coat of paint. Once you walk in, through the conservatory, though, you know you have arrived somewhere special. Not because of the decor or anything - it still looks like a pub inside, though a nice pub at that. But the service is immediately warm and welcoming. The menu is written on a blackboard at the side of the bar, but we didn't even need to look at it, because we had already asked for the tasting menu when booking. They asked us if we wanted to see our menu, or if we wanted it to be a surprise. A surprise, of course! Much more exciting and intriguing!

We were shown to our table and could hardly contain our excitement - like a couple of fat kids in a cake shop! We had read about previous tasting menus here online, but it changes daily, so what would we get? Once we settled in, we were brought two gorgeous savoury cheddar cheese shortbreads with parmesan filled with tomato cream. The shortbread was rich and crumbly and the filling slightly acidic from the tomato. A good start, we thought.

The next thing to arrive at the table was their home pickled herring with apple jelly on rye and the most amazing pork scratchings you will ever taste, served warm with a generous helping of apple and mustard sauce. The herring was perfectly pleasant, though not memorable, but the scratchings were like little warm clouds of crunchy delicious pork. They were heavenly!

Next to arrive was the native oyster with apple and their home curred ham. Both my husband and I found it a little underwhelming. The oyster had a very strong flavour, and I don't know if I didn't eat it 'properly', but I didn't get any apple or ham flavour over the oyster. After that, though, followed one of my favourite things; An oyster again, but served in a beurre blanc and topped with caviar. This one I left in my mouth for a few seconds, before chewing and the flavour was just sublime! Unfortunately it was so exciting, there was only a picture of the empty oyster shell to show!

Ah, the next item to arrive at the table was their selection of home made breads with the home churned salted butter. There isn't much I can say about this, other than that I would have happily just eaten that bread slathered in butter for the rest of the day! I started with the onion and rosemary foccacia, thinking I wouldn't enjoy it as much as the sourdough or the rye (I think they said rye, though it tasted more like pumpernickel). I then tasted the other two as well and just couldn't decide which one I should keep for my last mouthful... It was the foccacia in the end! Best foccacia I have ever tasted, both in flavour and texture and all! The butter was deliciously rich and creamy too.

Then arrived the next course; Rockpool. I would have to ask them to describe it for you, as some of it was quite technical and influenced by Japanese cooking - which, though I adore, I don't really know that much about! Basically it was a bowl with oyster, cockles, crab and sea greens, topped with an extremely delicate broth made with seaweed, turbot bones (from the turbot in our next course) and dried mackerel, I believe. In any case, it tasted like the a delicate version of just that; a rockpool! It was all topped with dried crispy seaweed, which had an extremely sweet flavour, despite its fairly strong odour.

Next to arrive was crab with shredded carrot and hollandaise. It was exactly that, and it tasted rich, yet fresh at the same time. It also had a slight kick from the little specs of chilli I could see in the sauce. Delicious, though not something I would go out of my way to have again - unlike the next course. This one was one of the favourites for both of us. It was slip sole in seaweed butter. The fish was cooked to perfection and on the bone. It looked so simple, but the depth of flavour was fantastic. Definitely a dish worth travelling for!

After that followed the 'King of Fish'; Turbot. It was the fish from which they had used the bones to make the stock for the 'Rockpool' course. The turbot was served on broccoli with a smoked roe sauce. The turbot was, once again, cooked to perfection. The broccoli gave it the right amount of freshness to cut through the rich smoked roe sauce. I must say that the first mouthful with the sauce tasted quite overwhelming and I didn't think that the taste of the fish would be able to come through, but with every mouthful the smokey flavour subsided and allowed for the beautiful flavour of the fish to come through.

We had made it to the meat course and we still didn't feel overwhelmingly full. They had spaced all the courses extremely well and despite the fact that I had probably eaten more on that day than the 3 days previously combined, I still felt happy and comfortable. Excited, even, for the next course; Roast lamb from Monkshill farm. There was a little surprise, though! Before the actual course arrived, a slate plate was put in front of us with two pieces of belly of lamb in a mustard crumb, served with a mint sauce. It was absolutely delicious! The meat was completely soft and full of flavour, complemented by the mustard crumb and the mint sauce. The mustard crumb was a little strong on its own, but combined with the sweet mint sauce - the best I have ever tasted, by the way - it was divine!

Now it was the time for the roast lamb. We were served the rack and the shoulder with greens, a celeriac puree and gravy. The rack was perfectly pink and strong in lamby flavour. The shoulder had crispy skin and was completely soft and melt-in-the-mouth delicious. The greens cut through the richness of the meat perfectly and the sauce and the celeriac puree were both fantastic. I, in fact, kept those two for my last mouthful of the dish. The mint sauce from the previous mini-course was also left at the table, so we could drizzle it all over the perfectly cooked lamb. And at the end of the course, when everything had disappeared of the plates and only the mint sauce remained, my husband made sure not to waste any by drinking the rest of it! Yes it was that good!

It was now close to two and a half hours after our first nibble had arrived and time for desert. Vanilla junket with a mango, passion fruit and mandarin topping. Deliciously fresh from the fruit and creamy from the... cream! Best I can describe it is a panacotta topped with fruit. A perfect little cleanser.

Now, I have to prepare you for the dessert course. On paper it doesn't read very well. In fact, even on the table it didn't smell the most appetising either. But I promise you, it worked! Meringue ice cream with seabuckthorn juice and dried seaweed. The meringue ice cream was delicious and sticky. The seabuckthorn juice (seabuckthorn is a little orange fruit that grows near the sea usually and is very sour) gave it the right amount of acidity and the seaweed - which smelt like the sea and not like it should be on a dessert - tasted sweet and gave it a little crunchy texture. It actually was a perfect end to the meal.

...Or so we thought! A tray was presented to us with a few petit fours; warm chocolate mousse with salted caramel, apple sorbet with yoghurt, custard tart, fudge and shortbread. We had tasted the warm chocolate mousse the last time we had visited as a dessert and knew it was delicious, so left it for last. I started with the apple sorbet, thinking it would be underwhelming - I 'm not the biggest fan of apple sorbet. It was amazing! The apple sorbet was delicious and between the sorbet and the yoghurt was a surprising little layer of popping candy - how fun! The custard tart was also great - really thin short pastry with delicious custard and nutmeg. The fudge and the shortbread were both OK, but not the best I have had. Finally the chocolate mouse was deliciously rich and bitter and warm. I have no idea how they make warm chocolate mousse and keep it so fluffy, but I know I liked it! I also liked the liquid salted caramel I found at the bottom of the cup!

We don't get many days out on our own, so when they turn out to be good it really does make it seem like a treat. This was a treat; the setting, the food and the service were all great and we left feeling generously fed and ready to deal with another few months of parenthood, before the next outing...

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