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Sunday, 30 January 2011

Foodie Getaway: Weekend in Whitstable

I was so looking forward to Christmas this year. Newly married, my husband and I decided to spend the holidays alone - away from the madness of in-laws. I booked a cosy cottage in the Lake District and made reservations at the excellent Jumble Room in Grasmere, and the superb Drunken Duck in Ambleside. But as sod's law would have it, two disasters struck. First: Snowmageddon hit Britain (or to this haughty Canadian - a sprinkle of snow). Second: a nasty flu bug hit me. Holiday cancelled, we spend our first Christmas as a married couple on the sofa in our flat watching DVDs as I shivered under blankets with a hot water bottle. Two weeks later when I recovered, I booked a weekend in Whitstable to make up for the flu-that-stole-Christmas. I had a few friends who had visited in recent months and they all came back raving about the restaurants. First on my weekend hitlist was The Sportsman.
This gastropub earned itself a Michelin star in 2008 and foodies have been scrambling to get a table ever since. It's about two miles down the road from Whitstable. We walked along the sea, which took us about an hour and a half. The chef, Stephen Harris is self-taught and started cooking professionally at 33.  We began with three poached rock oysters with pickled cucumber and caviar (£7.95). They were unbelievably creamy with a nice splash of vinegar and the rich aftertaste of caviar. I liked them very much, but my oyster-loving husband said the cream overtook the freshness and raw taste of the oysters. So after polishing off the poached ones, we ordered two Whitstable oysters (£2.95 each) - on the rocks.
"Much better," cooed my husband. He was even happier when the waitress pointed outside the window and told him they had been caught that very morning just a few feet from the front door of the pub.
For my after-oyster starter, I opted for the crab risotto (£9.95). It was intensely rich, cooked in a crabby broth, but remarkably light for a risotto. The grains of rice were much thinner than typical risottos and the portion size just right for a starter. The shaved crab on top was so fresh, I imagined it was happily crawling across the shore that very morning (sorry crab). It was easily my favourite course.
If I had one regret, it's that I didn't stick with seafood for my main course. Instead I was swayed by the waitress who said the local lamb with homemade mint sauce (£16.95) was by far her favourite dish on the menu. Don't get me wrong, it was lovely. But it did taste like every gastropub Sunday lunch I've had in London recently. Being a Michelin-starred pub, I suppose I was expecting something a little more extraordinary. My fella did slightly better with a succulent rich roast breast and confit leg of Aylesbury duck with red wine sauce (£16.95). Both our mains were washed down with the best wine I've had this year:  a spicy 2008 number called Caliterra Tributo Carmenere from Chile (£19.95).
For desert, I chose the cream cheese ice cream and pear puree. The ice cream was delicious, but the pear puree with bits of meringue made it a bit too sweet for my liking. All in all, The Sportsman was very good and the service, some of the friendliest we had encountered. It was a wee bit pricey, so I might not rush back immediately, but would definitely recommend it for a special meal or a celebration.
We had planned to eat dinner at the Whitstable institution that is Wheeler's Oyster Bar. Located on the High Street, Wheeler's has been around for over 150 years and critics say it has the best seafood in town. But, bad news for us - it was closed for a winter break. Instead, the owner of our wonderful B&B suggested a place right next door called Samphire. Not having any expectations, we were pleasantly surprised and loved the pork belly starter with roasted apple chutney (£5.95). Hubby had a gorgeous vegetarian pie with roasted butternut squash and twineham cheese, which we were told was like an English parmesan (£13.50). The food and atmosphere were very homey. 
But the best meal of the weekend was had at JoJo's, a 15 minute walk from Whitstable. I had read a glowing review by Jay Rayner. But things had changed significantly since he wrote that article. JoJo's is no longer a "stripped out bedsit" - but rather a full-fledged restaurant that's now six times the size it once was. It's a buzzy, fun restaurant which specialises in Mediterranean mezze, like the chargrilled squid with chorizo, red pepper, cherry tomatoes and shallots (£9.95) pictured above.
Nikki Billington (middle) is the entertaining, frenetic chef. Her partner Paul Watson is front of house. When I called to make a booking, he told me JoJo's was BYOB. "Corkage is £2 a bottle - unless you buy your wine from Tesco - then it's £5 a bottle," he said seriously. We were lucky enough to secure one of the last spots in the restaurant - at the bar overlooking the kitchen. We got to witness Nikki's wit and the fast-pace of a busy kitchen in action.
We loved the golden, crispy deep fried courgettes with parmesan and garlic mayo (£5.30). Nikki swore at her sous-chef when they didn't come out perfectly the first time and asked them to make them over again. He mouthed something silently back at her, but did as he was told - and they came out perfectly battered.
The Monkshill mutton and feta koftas with spicy tomato sauce and tsatziki (£9.50) were tasty and gave me memories of traveling round the Greek islands. The sauce was absolutely gorgeous, with just the right amount of kick. I told Nikki so and she offered to email me the recipe if I wanted it.
The chargrilled sardines with lemon and black pepper (£6.95) were blackened on the outside, but perfectly tender on the inside.
I chose the plum crumble with ice cream (£5.25) over the chocolate torte for desert. Paul warned me it would take about 15 minutes to cook, but I was happy to digest the flavours of the mezze and watch the bustling kitchen while I waited. When it came, the crumble was a delicious blend of sour plum and browned sugar. It was the perfect end to the perfect foodie weekend. Since raving about these three spots on Twitter, a Whitstable local (@SimonPoole) got in touch to say I should add the Three Mariners at Oare to my list, as well as Salt Marsh and the Dove at Dartgate. Being just an hour and a half from London, I most certainly will return and am already licking my lips in anticipation.

The Sportsman
Faversham Road, Seasalter, Whitstable, Kent CT5 4BP
tel: +44 (0)1227 273 370

4 High Street, Whitstable CT5 1BQ
tel: +44 (0)1227 770 075

2 Herne Bay Road, Whitstable, CT5 2LQ
tel: +44 (0)1227 274 591

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