“So when did you make your dinner reservation?” he asked, leaning against the door.
“Early August,” I told him. “Almost four months ago.”
I was standing in the lobby of my hotel on a brutally cold night in Canterbury, England, and the owner was telling me everything he knew about The Sportsman. I was waiting for an Uber to take me to the restaurant in Seasalter, an almost off-the-map village five miles north and pressed against the sea. “Just don’t judge that book by its cover,” he said, alluding to its famously unpretentious exterior. “And that Uber’s got no chance of finding it.”
The Sportsman’s own Twitter bio used to describe it as “a grotty rundown pub by the sea,” but the fading exterior isn’t why it’s held a Michelin star since 2008, nor why it’s a two-time Restaurant of the Year according to the Estrella Damm National Restaurant Awards, among countless others. History teacher-turned-self-taught chef Stephen Harris practices ‘terroir cooking,’ using the landscape that surrounds the restaurant as his farm, his fish market and his garden. He reduces hyperlocal to an area of a few hundred yards, sourcing oysters and seaweed from just behind his kitchen and making both butter and salt (!!!) on-site.
The hotel owner was right: by the time the Uber made its last wrong turn and dropped me off in a dark parking lot, I did wonder if he’d overestimated his GPS’ abilities. But then I pushed through the door, took in the slightly off-center chalkboard menu, the knotty wooden floors…and the pile of awards and plaques casually congregating at the far end of the bar.
I was sitting alone (“Just the one, then? Just you?” someone from the restaurant repeated when they called to confirm my reservation. YES, I’M EATING, TRAVELING AND QUITE POSSIBLY DYING ALONE, THANK YOU FOR CONFIRMING), and I tried to low-key examine all of the inscriptions and accolades from my seat as I waited for the first course.
The tasting menu began with an amuse-bouche trio, anchored by pickled herring and Bramley apple jelly on brown soda bread, a combination with a briny sweetness that made me consider eating the toothpick I’d pulled from the center. Two more small courses followed, including a pair of oysters that were so perfect, the ancient Greeks would’ve found a way to deify them.
The minutes passed and I savored another half-dozen courses – including slip sole in seaweed butter, possibly the dish most representative of Harris’ approach – and I was on the verge of food-based delirium. I marveled at the depth of the flavors, the unexpected but impeccable pairings (like the arranged marriage of delicate meringue and mouth-puckering sea buckthorn) and as I tried to subtly lick the corners of my plate, I looked up and saw all of those awards again.
There have been countless studies on what can influence our sense of taste, causing us to believe that foods and beverages are either better or worse than we might’ve perceived otherwise. Researchers at the Memorial University of Newfoundland discovered that diners’ perceptions about their meals could be manipulated by plate size, shape and color, by the weight of their cutlery and by the restaurant’s atmosphere. A team from Cornell University learned that a higher priced meal gave customers a better interpretation of their dining experience. Was I becoming a victim of my own expectations? Did Harris’ reputation, that long lead time for a reservation and a mountain of hardware from Estrella Damm make the meal seem even more extraordinary than it was? Science would say maybe, but my own largely unscientific brain says it’s OK with that.
When I’d wiped my mouth for the last time and the waiter told me that he was sorry, but I’d eaten all of the courses on offer, I reluctantly crunched through the parking lot and got into a waiting cab. I’d barely closed the door when the driver jerked his head back toward the restaurant and said, “It’s better than you thought it’d be, innit?”
It was. And I don’t even care why.