Some day, somewhere, a brave restaurateur will adopt the following idea: to open a restaurant specialising in those celebrating, or about to celebrate, a birthday.
I am not the only one to associate birthdays with restaurants. Out recently in The Lighterman in London before a concert at King’s Place to celebrate Jancis’s birthday, we were greeted with a resounding chorus of ‘Happy Birthday’ from another table.
Perhaps it was just this, or perhaps it is the conjunction of quite a few birthdays of those dear to me recently that made me think of this, but I am sure restaurateurs benefit hugely from birthdays. Although perhaps none to the extent of Oslo Court, that unchanged and unchanging St John’s Wood restaurant where, last time we ate there, no fewer than seven tables were celebrating a birthday – each with a cake and all with the waiting staff gathered round to sing!
I have the menus from my fortieth, fiftieth, sixtieth and sixty-fifth birthdays as well as very happy memories of them all. My fortieth was cooked for me by my sister when she still lived in London. My fiftieth was cooked for me and 100 of my closest friends at St John restaurant in Farringdon. My sixtieth was a memorable long weekend of food and drink at Almadraba Park Hotel, outside Roses in north-eastern Spain. And my sixty-fifth has just been celebrated with a Saturday lunch, my favourite meal of the week, at The Sportsman in Seasalter on the north Kent coast.
In fact it is only this last birthday meal for which I do not have a copy of the menu, perhaps because it was the simplest: a crab risotto, followed by a turbot, whole and grilled served with grilled asparagus, and a splendid mille feuille of new season’s strawberries. All washed down with bottles of Kistler Chardonnay and a magnum of 2010 Schioppetino from Ronchi Di Cialla, bottles which we brought with us and on which we happily paid the restaurant’s very reasonable £10 per bottle corkage.
If the menu sounds reasonably straightforward then the arrangements certainly were not – although these did give a certain amount of extra pleasure to two members of my family. The first was to our son William, whose original idea this expedition was back in January, and such is The Sportsman’s quite justified popularity that it was only just possible for the wonderful Shelly to find a table to accommodate all 10 of us even given three months’ notice.
Then there were the logistics, a particular source of pleasure for Jancis. It was her research of the train timetables from St Pancras to Faversham, followed by phone calls to various taxi firms that set us on our way. When I went to collect the tickets from the machine at the station, it spewed out so many pieces of paper that I felt like the winner at a slot machine.
The sun was shining all day and we had barely taken our many seats on the train before Jake, our elder grandson, had pulled out his pack of Happy Families – his idea of a fun day out. And we too looked like a happy family, all 10 of us, William and Hen, Rose and Win, Julia, Charlie, Jake, his little brother Leo and five week-old Maya, Jancis and myself. If my birthday had just consisted of a train ride to Faversham and back, then I would have been very happy.
But I was to be more than happy and not just because of what we were to enjoy. As we walked in, there was a table of two, a young couple whom we had to pass en route to our table at the rear. As we filed past I could not help overhearing the man ask his partner ‘How about bringing Mum here for her sixtieth?’ I could not resist telling him that we were celebrating my sixty-fifth and that I was sure his mother would love it.
As did we. The menu had been chosen to please several in our party. Most importantly, it was to please Julia, who does not eat meat. Secondly, it was to please me, as my favourite fish in the world is a large grilled turbot when it is available. And thirdly I have always associated risotto with The Sportsman. When I first reviewed this restaurant in 2012 I laid particular emphasis on the ‘cuisine du terroir’ approach adopted by the kitchen – with the exception of the splendid crab risotto that we were served that day. When I quizzed chef-patron Stephen Harris about it, his response was, ‘Obviously, the rice for this dish isn’t grown around here. But I like to think that Roman soldiers marched around here a couple of thousand years ago so that makes me feel fine about serving it.’ The second time it was as good as the first.
Then it was time for our first sight of Stephen and our main course. Brandishing a very large oven tray and wearing a bright yellow T shirt with the numbers 1969 firmly emblazoned on it, he came to show us a huge turbot ready for his oven.
‘This will be the first time we’ve cooked turbot like this as it really is very expensive', he said, ‘but I’m really looking forward to it.’ This made us all feel very special, like being transported to Elkano, the famous fish restaurant outside San Sebastian that specialises in this type of fish cooking. This turbot was just as good.
Our dessert owed everything to Stephen and his pastry chef’s imagination. I had mentioned a dessert that had ‘something to do with strawberries’ and in particular the gariguette variety, the French variety that matures very early, around my birthday in early April. These are not as sweet as later-maturing varieties but have the most pungent aroma, a smell that I will always associate with the many fruit stores on the Rue des Abbesses in Montmartre.
What emerged in the hands of our charming waitress was another large board, this time carrying a three-layered puff-pastry creation. This was in the chef’s words ‘a strawberry mille feuille. Three layers of caramelised puff pastry with raw cream and custard. Then some strawberries dressed with lime syrup, rosewater and hazelnut oil’.
The constant sunshine combined with the alcohol had the desired effect on our eyelids and Jancis had a snooze in the grass by the car park after our grandsons had explored the nearby beach (see above right). Then it was back to London and reality.
The Sportsman Faversham Road, Seasalter, Whitstable CT5 4PB; tel +44 (0)1227 273370; Tasting menu £70
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