I do actually enjoy the football, but pretty much nothing would have got in the way of another trip to The Sportsman at Seasalter in Kent last Friday. Certainly not the seven hours on various trains it took to get there and back, nor even an England match, had there been one. The Sportsman is a gastronomic treat that can occasionally be equalled, but not bettered.
I rarely get a chance to go, and missed out last year. After a two year wait to go again there was always the question of whether the food would live up to the last time, but it did. When we combine the wines (BYO thanks to a friend’s connections), I can say that this was my best visit yet.
We were there for the Tasting Menu, which is ostensibly eight courses, although several other items turn up so that you kind of lose count. Taking sixteen bottles of wine between eight of us probably had something to do with that as well.
This article is really a chance to post up a load of photos rather than waffle on, but please take it as encouragement to go if you haven’t already done so.
First up we opened one of my wines, Vilmart Couer de Cuvée 2003 which we drank with the little hors d’ouvres in the scond photo. Vilmart is always good in so-called off vintages. For some reason Laurent seems able more than most to tease the best out of them, and their top cuvée is (in my experience) never lacking. Indeed, it is the only Champagne that I bought from the disappointing 2001 vintage. This 2003 performed marvellously, showing complexity rarely found in mere premier cru fruit, but always in a properly aged Coeur.
Next we went for a daring combination which worked, a trout tartare with soy matched with Puffeney Arbois Savagnin “Naturé” 2014. This was the ouillé (topped-up) vesion of course, and many will know that this is the last vintage Jacques made before his retirement. It will age magnificently, but the freshness it displayed here was to the advantage of the trout.
Poached rock oysters with various accompaniments were so fresh and delicious. Caviar, rose petals, beetroot and crystallised seaweed were among the list of things I think I heard reeled off from the end of the table. We were treated to a (Maison) Leroy Montagny 1er Cru 2014, which was quite lean and perhaps also quite youthful, but then you don’t see the Leroy negoce wines too often.
The class of the kitchen kept up the pressure on the wine with an oh so delicate chilled asparagus soup with milk foam, accompanied by a raw asparagus tart with cream cheese and borage, which matched its delicacy.
Here we went with Weiser-Kunstler Enkircher Ellergrub Riesling Trocken 2015 (only the back label survived – see photo). The Ellergrub vineyard is one of the finest in the Mosel (classified Grand Cru in the unofficial 1897 mapping of the river’s vineyards), and here we have one of my consistently favourite producers. 2015 was a warm one but this wine still has definition, acidity, and backbone. Mention should be made of the restaurant’s home baked bread, just in the corner of the left hand photo below – a treat of itself.
It’s usually around this stage when everyone realises the food is coming faster than the wines, but from here the wines took off. Domaine Marcel Deiss Engelgarten 2014 is one of Jean-Michel’s field blends, consisting of Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Muscat. I don’t think field blends are taken seriously enough in Alsace, given the quality of the famous Deiss wines.
This is a delicious wine, intense on the attack, quite floral on the nose. It showed really well, although I personally think a wine as good as this needs quite a few more years in the cellar. It was liked on the day, but may have stunned with due ageing.
The next dish out of the kitchen was perhaps the one which many of us were waiting for, the slipsole in seaweed butter. The butter is made at the restaurant. It is a deceptively simple signature dish. The key is in cooking the fresh fish to perfection, combined with the subtle flavours of the butter. The dish becomes something quite ethereal. To do this day in, day out, shows a mastery of cooking better than any flash or complicated dish.
The perfect accompaniment for the butter was a Chardonnay of extraordinary quality from one of the Jura Sud-Revermont’s masters. Chardonnay “La Bardette” Ouillé Nature 2014, Domaine Labet. A wine from vines over seventy years of age, it has a mineral profile, yet didn’t overpower the fish with its expressive fruit and nuts. The wine and the dish were so individually good, I suppose, that they worked together.
At least the equal of the Bardette was one of my wines of the day, Sadie Palladius 2014. This was another young wine, a blend of a host of varieties (Chenin, Semillon and Semillon Gris, Grenache Blanc, Viognier, Verdelho, Palomino Fino and Clairette). It was the first vintage of this wine to be made in amphora and it was already showing a touch of complexity. Rich and stunning, with a lot of potential for further development. South Africa’s Swartland can be more than proud.
Time to open the reds. Two wines from the increasingly expensive and highly regarded Domaine Prieuré Roch were a fascinating contrast. Coteaux Bourguignons Gamay 2015 was a delicious use of this disloyal grape, lightish, very lively, and completely likeable. Ladoix “Le Cloud” 2015 was a nice fruity Pinot, light but still with a good heft of tannin at this stage. But a good example of how the once-lesser villages on the Côte d’Or are thriving under the care of top producers.
Between these two was sandwiched a classical Beaujolais from a top domaine, Fleurie 2014 “Clos de la Grand Cour”, Domaine de la Grand Cour, Jean-Louis Dutraive. I am a big fan of the wines from 2014 in Beaujolais, but if anyone wants to know why this wine still has pronounced acidity it is, I would suggest, because it is too young. It should blossom into a classic. Only 12.5% abv, with the potential for elegance. Serious Fleurie.
With the three reds swishing around it would be easy to forget the summer vegetable tart which appeared (with goat curd and onion). The dish was one which might have had less impact with that amount of wine to compete with. It didn’t. A simple dish, yet a great blend of flavours, and it melted in the mouth.
We took a breather with another white which might have been momentarily forgotten. Tenerife produces wines which have now received due credit. Taganan 2016, Envinate is made from Canary Islands staple variety Listan Blanco (the local name for Palomino), blended with Albillo, Malvasia, Marmajuello and others and is fresh, nutty and soaked in delicate iodine salinity. A true “Vino Atlantico”.
Turbot is one of my favourite fish and if this restaurant can’t do it well, then who can? In a Tasting Menu you won’t get a big piece, and size is really my only (wholly unreasonable) disappointment with this firm and flavoursome version. Here it is done with bacon, an asparagus spear and a Fino Sherry sauce. If you are going red with Turbot you need something fine. I’d brought an Armand Rousseau Clos de la Roche 2004. My thinking was that 2004 was generally a fairly disappointing vintage on the Côte de Nuits (a ladybird year to top everything), but I’d heard Rousseau did well (I only had the single bottle, bought near release).
The wine here was, unlike a few on the day, unusually mature, with more weight and complexity than I expected. I think some real Burgundy experts might have been hyper-critical, but it was generally appreciated for its quality and presence. I did rather like it and I can be a little over-critical of wines I take along to lunches and dinners. But as I said, despite a certain majesty, it’s quite mature.
Dining at The Sportsman and looking out on the salt marshes of the North Kent coast, the expectation for salt marsh lamb is high. Today it came as a roast shoulder with baba ganoush. After the turbot we all thought it couldn’t get any better…actually, we did have an inkling through having tasted lamb here before. So good.
Two very different wines accompanied the lamb. Brunello di Montalcino 2010, Il Paradiso di Manfredi was far less of a monster than some might have expected. This small “natural wine” producer, fairly unique in Montalcino, makes very elegant wines, but they don’t lack for richness. I would also say that I did expect it to taste younger, but that unexpected touch of maturity was to its advantage.
The second red with the lamb, with no disrespect to the Brunello, was sensational, if somewhat more youthful. Raphael Bérêche makes some of the best Coteaux reds in the whole of Champagne. This Bérêche Coteaux Champenois “Les Montées” 2014 from vines at Ormes (Marne Valley) was a true delight to try. I try to visit Craon de Ludes as often as I can and I have never bought one of the Bérêche red wines. The simple reason, they are expensive and buying one means losing one corresponding bottle of Champagne. Next visit I won’t make the same mistake…that’s all I’m saying.
The general, clichéd, view of still wines from Champagne is that they are not very good. Climate change has helped make this view outdated. So has the focus, and care lavished, on these wines by top grower producers like Bérêche. Some may think me mad, but I do believe that some of us will be seeking out the still wines of Champagne in a decade or less with the same ardour that we same wine nuts seek out Grower fizz today.
A slight hiccup here means that there’s no photo of the lamb. Oops! I really wasn’t that drunk, as the remaining pics prove! I obviously got all over excited here.
The excitement did continue when the cheeseboard came out. We went back to the Jura Region and another master, J-F Ganevat “Cuvée Prestige” 2008. This Savagnin isn’t a Vin Jaune, yet it sees around eight years under flor/sous voile. It comes with 14% alcohol and it is richness personified, with massive presence. A great wine. I think we drank my only bottle of this last year, but I’d be as keen to find this again as one of Manu Houillon’s Overnoy bottlings. It is attaining the same “unicorn wine” lack of availability.
Nearing the end of the show, dessert came in three tranches. First up, Elderflower fritters with elderflower posset. Then, if those delicate morsels were not enough, rhubarb soufflé with rhubarb ripple icecream, the hot soufflé just waiting to receive the cold ice cream. Finally, a melt in the mouth salted caramel chocolate tartelette, of which I was unable to steal more than just my own.
We only had one dessert wine but its sweetness meant we only needed a little. It was a Vin de Paille from Stellenbosch in South Africa. It was dark and delicious, tasting of the combined purity and richness of sun-raisined grapes (enough acidity to stop cloying). But by this stage I had lost the will to focus and I apologise to the kind man who brought this for getting no further information. The strong espresso, de rigeur at lunches like this, helped not one bit. Nor does the label. Perhaps someone will recognise it.
The Sportsman is at Faversham Road, Seasalter, Whitstable, Kent (01227 273370). Check the website for opening hours here. The Tasting Menu (also see web site) must be taken by every diner on the table (max 10). Tasting Menu service begins promptly at 12.00, because you will be there a good four-and-a-half hours. It’s worth it.
Trains run from other London stations, but the 10.10 from Victoria (to Dover Priory) will get you to Faversham by 11.27, from where a taxi (approx £10) will get you to The Sportsman in good time, so long as one is available.
Make time for a post-prandial stroll if the weather is agreeable. The flat coastline and salt marshes are very attractive, and even pleasantly bleak when the weather is not so good. Some members of our party walked to Whitstable (for a pint) after lunch.
Col, Andrew, Tony, Vaughn, Robbie, Ben and Simon, all looking surprisingly firm on their feet in the face of a little camera shake from me