The Sportsman: Good, but maybe not worth its star (December 2014)

What does a restaurant or pub need to do in order to get a Michelin star? This was the question I mused as a group of five us set out for a recent lunch at the one-starred Sportsman near Whitstable. Since the Sportsman has had this accolade since 2008, it clearly must be doing something right. Indeed, it is one of a relatively exclusive club of just 56 establishments outside of London to hold such an award. According to the Michelin guide, the Sportsman and its ilk provide “a good place to stop on your journey” where “you can appreciate fine cooking at a reasonable price.” While it would be hard to disagree with the former (as much as anything given the absence of nearby competing alternatives), the latter is more open to question. Our conclusion was that the Sportsman is a decent enough establishment, but far from stand-out and certainly not evidently cheap. Moreover, it could be argued that simply being able to say that it has a Michelin star allows the Sportsman to charge a premium above what might normally be merited. Approached from the outside, the building looks somewhat nondescript, isolated on the Kent coast in subdued surroundings. Perhaps, we thought, the secret to its success lies within. Inside, however, the décor could be described as pleasant if just functional; think exposed wood, walls with a few black and white photos, but not a lot else. Onto the food, and obviously the main reason why we had made such an excursion. The menu reads well and the a la carte offers a range of around eight starters, mains and desserts, largely using local produce. In addition, there is a tasting menu available, although this must be ordered by the whole table. One initial disappointment was that one of the dishes available on the tasting menu could not be converted to an a la carte offering despite it being the same fish, prepared in the same way (braised brill), just with a different sauce (crab bisque rather than mussel and bacon tartare). Beyond this quibble, we all ordered happily and enjoyed a delicious basket of homemade bread while waiting for the food to arrive. Some of our group began with local oysters, served beautifully and tasting how they should. Overall, presentation was first-class throughout the meal, even if there were some subsequent let-downs. On the culinary side, a starter of smoked mackerel with bramley apple jelly was discordant, while a roast cod fillet main was somewhat overpoweringly salty according to one of our group. The Sportsman scored better with other mains of local lamb and also pork belly, and we all fell in love with the pudding selection. A beautifully light apple sorbet with burnt cream was a highlight, combining sophistication with a certain flavour sensation reminiscent of childhood sweets. Just as the food was somewhat hit-and-miss, so too did the service have its lapses, most egregiously when some, but not all of our mains were left sitting on the table, festering and gradually going cold, while one of our group was using the bathroom. Surely any establishment with a bit of common sense might wait until our entire group had returned. When the bill came, we were looking at around £75/head. Admittedly, a certain amount of alcohol was consumed (from a praiseworthy wine list), but one could not help thinking, we could perhaps have got better value for money and/or had a superior culinary experience for a similar price elsewhere.