The success story that is The Sportsman can't help but appeal. We love the story they tell on their website that when they initially took over the pub, the windows were boarded up so daylight wouldn't disturb the drinkers. The dartboard too, Keith Talent would approve. Yet the transformation of this pub to gastronomic shrine invites everyone to believe that anything's possible; the pub itself is a well of hope.
And while reportedly they get upset when people talk of the place in 'run down' terms, even the owners would surely have to admit that the outside could do with a new coat of paint but to be fair, the inside is comfortable, modern, spacious and light. Arguably the beaten up outside enhances the charm and one suspects they know this and even possibly revel in the contradiction.
We're also struck by just how far removed this is (and not just in mile terms) from fellow one star luminaries such as Gauthier Soho and Sketch, can you imagine either of these with paper napkins? The Sportsman remains true to its roots being anchored in the great traditions of public houses even if the food has made a breakout escape to the major leagues.
The daily menu is written on the board and if you want a tasting menu, not only do you need to pre-order but you need to have an early sitting for it takes several hours to serve. We have a late sitting so no tasting menu today, rather, we order from the board and wanting to try across the range of food, we take an extra main course to what's strictly needed. What's more, with a strong reputation for local suppliers, we're not wholly surprised that from the pub car park you can see lambs in the field opposite so of course we order lamb.
The first of the starters, 3 poached rock oysters, pickled cucumber & Avruga caviar (with a beurre blanc) is truly excellent. The clean but rich saltiness of the caviar provides an interesting and different take than the deep sea saltiness of the oyster which together provide a fascinating combination and a winning plate. This is definitely the dish of the day. Three seems hardly enough but priced a £7.95, its excellent value for such a prestigious dish.
The other starter, poached egg, bacon and purple sprouting brocolli salad is an excellent example of the kind, the egg perfectly done and with great flavour but is it, as a dish, elevated above its description? No. For sure it's good, but ultimately, it is as it sounds and as it looks.
But what comes next was a real surprise, the dishes failed to deliver even on taste. The Baked cod fillet with a mussel and parsley sauce was the principal villain here and it wasn't just 'not good', it was actually quite bad. First, that parsley sauce: not only is it everywhere on the plate, but it had no freshness, no essence of parsley even but rather bitter notes only. And this coated everything, and more puree than sauce in texture. It was near on impossible to have a mouthful of anything here without it being coated in this offending green. Accordingly, everything else on the plate lost its flavour to the omnipresent sauce; why bother with the mussels if you can't taste them. The cod fillet too came skin on but presented skin side down. Whether the skin was ever crisp to begin with, who knows (though we suspect not), but submerged in the sauce, any crispiness that might have been had long since gone and what was left was flaccidly unappealing. The fish was also over salted and a third of the way into the dish we could go no more.
The other two mains were better but still not great. These were crispy duck, smoked chilli salsa and sour cream, and Roast rack of lamb & mint sauce. The 'smoked chilli salsa' seemed little more than blended tomatoes while the duck, served also with roast potatoes and cabbage, proved to be good pub grub, but not Michelin star cooking in our view. The lamb was the best presented of the three dishes but again, rack of lamb with two roast potatoes and overly horseradished spinach? This was absent any magic and being simply 'good' just doesn't seem good enough here.
The conclusion will seem like blasphemy to many: our meal today was in line with a try hard gastro pub but no better. In East London, the well regarded gastro-pub The Gun is as good or better and on seafood, the award winning fish restaurant at historic public house The Grapes will serve you better fish. For rich earthly flavours from meat at equivalent prices, Bistrot Bruno Loubet delivers more depth by using ingredients more cleverly.
We really, really wanted to love The Sportsman so that through the summer we could enjoy superlative food and have an excuse to visit the seaside on a regular basis, but the sad fact is, we don't. For us, there's better food right here on our doorstep.
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Related pages: The Gun
Related pages: The Grapes
Related pages: Bistrot Bruno Loubet