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

Olive - - Contents - Words CLARE HAR­G­REAVES

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

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