The Sportsman in Whitstable, one of my favourite places to eat in the UK (and recently voted #1 in the 2016 Restaurant Awards), epitomises the word ‘destination’.
To reach the pared-back Michelin-starred joint, it’s either a good hour and a half’s walk along the beach from the Kentish resort, tide permitting, or a slow, winding drive past the ragbag of bungalows, beach houses and caravans on the long road to Seasalter, where it eventually comes into view on the shore.
So when I read that chef-patron Stephen Harris had been approached to steer the food at the new Noble Rot wine bar in Bloomsbury late last year, with his colleague Paul Weaver heading up the kitchen, it became number one on my hitlist of new openings.
We only made it down a couple of weeks back, when popping down to Lamb’s Conduit Street to peruse its classy parade of menswear stores, which include J-Crew, Folk and Oliver Spencer.
Owners (and founders of the associated Noble Rot Magazine) Dan Keeling and Mark Andrew have done little to the interior – and rightly so. Walk-ins, we are sat right at the back, just under the skylight, as a table of tourists finishes up and leaves us alone in what appears to be an extension.
It’s pleasant enough with the Saturday sun streaming in, but we feel slightly excluded from the main action and so request a move to an empty corner table in the main space. “The owner’s mother has just come in,” whispers the waiter, conspiratorially, “and she always sits there.”
Okaaay. So we stay put, no problem, and observe the clatter and noise beyond: the couple with buggy, trying to concentrate on eating without distraction; the groups of friends knocking back red, and two sixtysomethings tucking into an afternoon of wine-by-the-glass, one man snorting noisily with laughter every couple of minutes.
And why not? It’s a joie-de-vivre kind of place: daily wine specials are chalked up on the board (some at over £20 a pop), with lots more available in tasting 75ml measures (from just £2) or small 125ml glasses.
We sip a very light vinho verde to start, followed by a glass of Triennes rosé and then Corbieres with our mains – all the while unsure whether the 125ml movement is clever and health-based – after all, you drink less, right? – or just, er, more expensive.The food starts with a bang. A twist on a Sportsman classic, slipsole in smoked butter (£9), sings in its simplicity, the opaque flesh slipping off on a fork, its barbecued edge enough to keep things interesting.
A bowl of earthy, salty smoked eel with chervil and sweet heritage tomatoes (£8.50, below left) is wonderful too, with its colliding textures on the tongue, if a bit of a bugger to share, as we’re doing. Still, the ample plate of homemade soda bread and focaccia is on hand to mop up the juices.
It’s easy to trust a menu with little choice. And here there are just four mains, two of which – a comte tart and braised turbot with crab bisque – we dismiss in favour of guinea fowl (£17), its skin crisp, paired with a rich truffle cream sauce and bright green broad beans. Lamb (£18) from the Pennines is served two ways, the braised version less thrilling than the juicily red cutlets, the dish given further smoky depth by aubergine and roasted tomatoes.
We walk out a hundred quid lighter, service included, and promise to return in the evening next time. It’s a nearer commute, after all, than that remote stretch of coast a few miles north of Whitstable.[review]