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Honeymoon II: The Kindest Man and The Best Chef in Britain

March 13, 2011

Ok, all that talk about the air travel, well, I’m sorry. What a rant! Anyway, now that it’s out of my system I can describe to you the antidote to that madness otherwise known as the best meal of my life.

We anchored our honeymoon around a visit to a  town called Whitstable, primarily because we read a travel piece about it in the New York Times. The article appealed to me primarily because of its review of this Michelin-starred restaurant,  The Sportsman. (I’m pretty sure it appealed to Ethan because of the pictures of fishing boats.) The Sportsman is owned and run by two brothers–Phil and Stephen Harris, the self-taught chef.

When we arrived, we were already in a good mood–we could smell the salt air, and we were not in a mood to deny ourselves anything. One beer and one champagne please! I was also predisposed to love this place, not only because of the NYTimes photos of their food, but because they graciously agreed to let us order the 8-course tasting menu on a Saturday night, even though they state very clearly on their website that it’s not available on the weekends.

So, we settled in to this lovely nook of a place, toasted to having finally arrived at our destination, and were presented with the following:

1. Pork scratchings (don’t know, don’t care) with a mustard dipping sauce and  pickled herring canapes with mustard and green apple on homemade soda bread (not pictured because they were already in our stomachs at time of photo–my mind was on eating, not on photosl).  Both were fantastic.

2. Next they brought out a tray of homemade breads–a soda bread, a focaccia with dried fruit and rosemary, and another (sourdough?), with homemade butter, flavored with salt gathered by boiling down the ocean water from sea just outside the pub. This was immediately followed by Steve, who came out for a short chat and to bring us a little glass cup with mussels, chives, and bacon (or was it ham?), in which he poured a frothy chowder broth. It was amazing–warm and so flavorful. I was sure that this would be my favorite course.

3. Oysters topped with an apple foam and bacon. Need I say more?

4. Crab Risotto with tarragon. It turns out I was wrong about the chowder, because this was definitely my favorite course. It was so rich and crabby, it blew me away.

5. Smoked Widgeon with a grain and something else I can’t remember. Steve came out and told us about this dish too. He said that Widgeons are Scottish birds that are so stupid that when they fly south for the winter they come to the tip of Britain and stop there, thinking they’ve reached their destination. Lucky for us! They may be stupid, but they are also delicious.

6. A seaweed broth. I can’t remember what else was in this. All I know is that it tasted better than it sounds.

7. Seasalter Cured Ham. This dish arrived on a thick slate slab–ribbons of delicious cured ham, with a card explaining the origin of the dish. Essentially, they cured the ham over 14 months in the style of the Canterbury Monks of yore in an effort to reduce waste from the pigs they were buying from the nearby local Monkshill Farm. This was pretty damn good.

8. Sauteed Turbot over greens with chopped oysters and a scallop puree. Damn, that was a good piece of fish. Clearly.

So at this point we’re thinking, ok, that was 8 courses, wasn’t it?  Surely dessert’s coming next.

And then they brought these:

And we thought it was unlikely that that was a dessert knife.

9. Lamb belly, brushed with mustard, dipped in breadcrumbs, fried, and served with a mint sauce. Oh my freaking god, this dish was incredible. If there’s one we think we might try cooking at home one day, it would be this one.

10. Rack of Lamb with brocolli. At this point I was pretty sure I was going to burst. We were clearly well beyond 8 courses, full of champagne (me) and beer (Ethan). I needed a short break.

Out came Phil to chat us up and give our stomachs a chance to expand.

We chatted about his trips to New York and Seattle and about the restaurant. We told him tales of Minneapolis (they serve tater tots in restaurants!!), and he told us about how originally he and Steve were going to open a noodle shop, until they found the Sportsman, perched right on the beach like it was.  He told us about the best fish n’ chips in England, up in Yorkshire, which we should be sure to visit (we did) and other spots we should be sure not to miss. Then he asked us if we had a map. We joked how that would have been helpful when we were circling Heathrow for the 12th time, but how, no,  we were off on our great honeymoon adventure! Who needs maps when you have love?! He looked at us like we were completely bonkers, and asked us to wait a moment. We thought, oh that’s nice, perhaps he has an old tattered map of the area he’ll lend us, or maybe he just remembered he’d left someone holding on the phone for 25 minutes, or maybe he was just sick of chatting with the crazy American honeymooners and left out of boredom. He returned, and our jaws dropped as he handed us his own GPS from his car. I’ll repeat that, because you may have missed it: HE GAVE US HIS GPS.

I mean are you kidding? We were floored, needless to say, and tried to refuse. He insisted and just asked us to mail it back to him before we left England. I hope, that after 10 courses of the best food I’d had in my life and 36 hours on very little sleep that we were appropriately grateful. And I’ll also tell you, in case you wondering, that without that GPS we would most definitely be divorced.

After many thank you’s, we conceded that we were ready to continue with our main objective: eating every last scrap of food in the building.

11. A palate cleanser of green apple sorbet with a dallop of  cream, and if you can believe this, Pop Rocks. Who knew you could make Pop Rocks gourmet? In case you doubted it before, I feel that this should firm up Steve’s place as Best Chef. I feel like Pop Rocks is some masochistic ingredient chosen on Iron Chef, but this was fabulous.

12. Cream Cheese Ice Cream with a green apple compote-like sauce, sprinkled with crumble topping. This might not sound exciting, but you can ask my jeans that I no longer fit into–it was full-stop amazing. The cream cheese gave the ice cream a tanginess that was creamier and less aggressive than what you’d get from yogurt. It was perfect.

(Another break was had here after the wonderful waitress broke the news that there was another dessert course coming).

13. An array of delicious petits fours: chocolate mousse with seasalt and caramel, crumbly shortcake squares, nutmeg custard tartes, apple turnovers, and chocolate truffles. I opted to devour the first and take nibbles of the rest. All were delectable.

So, this was, as you can imagine the restorative experience we needed. Clearly we were going to have an incredible honeymoon with jolly people loaning us expensive personal objects the whole time.

We couldn’t help feeling like somehow we really had lucked into meeting the kindest people in Britain. Research would suggest, however, that experiences like these are two way streets. There is a psychological phenomenon called behavioral confirmation, otherwise known as self-fulfilling prophecies, or “people act the way you expect them too.” It’s quite likely that with all of our hope for The Sportsman, and perhaps their generous thoughts about us (though lord knows why they’d have any good expectations about a couple of over eager American newlyweds), we evoked the best from one another. And if that’s the case, well it feels even more miraculous, the best of human nature. Regardless, I can already see the story of this dinner being retold for generations, and it will probably become all inflated: “Then they brought your great great grandma a case of champagne and 300 oysters! They gave them a car!” And that would be a shame, because no fiction could match the real thing.

NOTE: The ever discerning Food Snob wrote a review of the Sportsman a few years ago, which paints a far less idiosyncratic picture. In addition to a good review (“the best meal of the year”), the pork scratchings, canapes, breads, crab risotto, cured ham, lamb belly, are all pictured and described. Ulterior Epicure reviewed the same meal here.

Behavioral Confirmation: Snyder, M, & Swann, W. (1978). Behavioral confirmation in social interaction: From social perception to social reality. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 14, 148-162.

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