On the road: north-east Kent
This once-gritty corner of the county has undergone a revival, especially where food is concerned. These days you’re as likely to find slip sole in foraged-seaweed butter, and chicken paired with Asian-style slaw as you are fish ’n’ chips and candyfloss
This once-gritty corner of the county has undergone a revival, especially where food is concerned
I’m heading for a place in Seasalter, a few miles west of Whitstable, that’s described in the owner’s Twitter bio as a “grotty rundown pub by the sea”. Not, you’d think, an obvious destination for a foodie. As I pass the holiday parks that sprawl like sea cabbage along the bleak shingle coastline and spot the boozer’s ramshackle exterior, I see what he means. Inside, though, it’s a different story. This is The Sportsman, owned by self-taught (and self-deprecating) chef Stephen Harris, whose flawless British cooking makes it one of the most hungered-after gastropubs in the country – expect to wait four or five months for a table ( thesportsmanseasalter.co.uk).
Treading a clever line between casual and classy, the pub’s wooden floors, scrubbed pine tables and pumps of Shepherd Neame beer (brewed in nearby Faversham) maintain the feel of a rural pub (just). Likewise, when it comes to the food, there’s no pretension, just locally sourced seasonal ingredients cooked simply but with an expert understanding of flavour combinations.
I go for the tasting menu – supposedly nine courses, but when you include all the bouche amusement and petits fours it’s more like 12, including (hurrah!) two puddings. Given the pub’s proximity to Whitstable, which has farmed oysters since Roman times and has its own oyster festival, it feels appropriate that the meal should start with the molluscs – natives au naturel if you come in winter, when they’re in season, but otherwise poached and served with a rhubarb granita. The oysters are followed by slip sole in a foraged-seaweed butter, then tender Kentish lamb, specimens of which graze on the marshes right in front of the pub. Also seriously good are the homemade breads and home-churned butter (rightly honoured as a course on their own) and a raspberry soufflé as light as the clouds scudding across the skies outside.
Seasalter is not the only place on the Kent coast enjoying a culinary revival (with property prices to match – beach huts next to the pub fetch over £200,000). Whitstable, once a gritty fishing port, has spawned a rich haul of cafés and restaurants to satisfy the weekend hordes of DFLs (“down from Londons”) who scuttle east along the high-speed train line. Candyflosspink-fronted Wheelers ( wheelersoysterbar.com) may have been dishing up oysters in its parlour-sized dining room since 1856, but now it’s joined by eateries like David Brown’s deli-restaurant ( davidbrowndeli.co.uk) and Samphire bistro ( samphirewhitstable.co.uk). Another must-visit among Whitstable’s clapboard houses is The Cheese Box ( thecheesebox.co.uk), selling British cheeses (including local Ashmore, Canterbury Cobble and Kentish Blue) and, on weekend evenings, cheese platters too. »
OPPOSITE (CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT): MORELLI’S ICE CREAM; WHITSTABLE BEACH HUTS; WHEELERS OYSTER BAR, WHITSTABLE; ROCK OYSTERS, PICKLED CUCUMBER AND ARUGA CAVIAR AT THE SPORTSMAN, SEASALTER