Before the meal

Stephen Harris

What makes an appetiser appetising? Nick goes to Seasalter and Marble Arch to find out.

When it comes to what will whet a diner’s appetite for the food that is to follow, every chef – professional or amateur – shares the same challenge. The snacks, bites and amuse-bouches must meet certain criteria. They must be easy to eat, ideally with your fingers. They must be free of any grease. They must be light and refreshing, erring on the slightly acidic. And they must stimulate the customer’s – or your friend’s – appetites for what is to follow.

Recently, at The Sportsman in Seasalter, Kent, and at Chourangi (which means crossroads in Urdu and is also the name of a suburb of Kolkata, India) near Marble Arch in London, I have had two expressions which fitted all these criteria. Both, happily, came with a story.

The Sportsman needs no introduction but what follows comes with a warning. Securing a booking here is incredibly difficult. You have to plan months and months ahead. But it is worth it.

Somehow, Jancis managed it and we arrived there at 12.50 pm one windy but sunny lunchtime. Emma, the chef Stephen Harris’s partner, was there and Harris actually sat down and joined us for five minutes. He was nursing a mug of tea, declined our offer of a pour from our bottle as he was working in the kitchen but I suspect he sat down because he knew that the discussion at our table would soon turn to the subject of wine. Wine is a drink that fascinates this extraordinary chef who, like so many of us, voiced a moan about the rising price of burgundy. You can see him in full blimey mode in our main picture above.

As he did so, our waitress served us a board loaded with slices of their sourdough, focaccia and soda bread (as good as that of Ballymaloe, Ireland) and some butter laced with Seasalter salt. This alone would beat what most of us have for lunch most days. But alongside the breads came the snacks: a creamy purée of fresh tomatoes on a crunchy biscuit; a thin slice of lightly toasted soda bread supporting some crème fraiche and a slice of smoked eel; and a small piece of duck wrapped in a fine filo pastry seeped through with hoisin sauce. Each was delicious, enlivened in some cases with a fragrant herb, and met all of the criteria listed in my opening paragraph.

Sportsman snacks

They were also, it transpired, an example of Harris’s person-management skills, an attribute that is essential to all chefs today but is particularly important when your restaurant is as isolated as The Sportsman and public transport seems to be so unreliable. Keeping your kitchen brigade happy, stimulated and, most crucially, not even thinking about leaving for another position, is as challenging today as coming up with a new dish for your menu.

And here was an example of Harris the thoughtful chef. He watched us devour these snacks, smile and voice our appreciation before he continued, ‘I’m glad you like them. They’re made by one chef who has taken over responsibility for all the snacks. He has been with me a while but was beginning to feel a bit burnt-out working on the stoves. So I moved him to snacks. He loves the challenge and it seems to be working’, he finished with his trademark smile.

The snacks were as good as the rest of the meal: three poached oysters topped with pickled cucumber, elegantly presented on a board inlaid with small cockle shells; a slip sole, a fish I associate with Harris and Shaun Hill, in smoked salt butter; brill braised with a creamy crab vinaigrette; and, as well as a plum soufflé with plum ripple ice cream, a pre-dessert of a perfect mini panna cotta in which mint and other herbs played a noticeable role.

All this for £70 per person plus 10% service in a location that from the windows of the kitchen at the front of the building the most appetising cooking smells waft across and one that within five minutes allows you the opportunity to walk it all off along the bracing beach. All the while, thinking about how delicious those snacks and soda bread had been.

My second encounter with a chef who delivers the same quality of snacks took place over lunch at Chourangi, an Indian restaurant that opened in October 2021 and which aims to deliver the unexplored flavours of India. More pertinently, its origins lie in Kolkata, a city which has long fascinated me since, as a boy, I would gaze at the enormous bales of white cotton goods in my late father’s warehouse, stamped ‘Calcutta, India’ in large black type.

Chourangi’s interior delivers neither the heat nor the atmosphere of this city with a population of over 15 million – there are a few black and white photos on the walls – but the restaurateur/chef behind this restaurant is Anjan Chatterjee who has opened 120 restaurants across India and China via Speciality Restaurants Ltd. Here in London culinary responsibility lies with a smiling Chef Petty.

His menu opens with three snacks, one of which immediately caught my eye. It was described as crackling spinach with roasted almond slivers. I promptly ordered along with it a mango lassi, a drink on which I consider myself something of a world expert. And while the drink was excellent, what arrived in a pewter cup was absolutely delicious: small pieces of spinach that had obviously been fried and then dried, topped with a generous amount of slivers of roasted almonds to make a very refreshing and appetising, salty, sweet and only slightly spicy snack.

Spinach and almond snack

The rest of the meal was almost as good. A dak bungalow chicken curry was warm and comforting but this was really a dish I chose because of its name. During the colonial era, the resthouses along the dak (mail) route were referred to as dak bungalow or dakbangla. It came with an unusual, thick pomegranate raita and roti finished in the tandoor. Next time I would not bother with the sondesh tart, a traditional Bengali dessert, that was not to my taste. (My bill came to £56.) But I will return for their pot-roasted jackfruit, their pickled hilsa (a member of the herring family) and their prawn and crab parcel.

By the time I return, I will have cooked my own crackling spinach because as I was about to leave I spotted their general manager Roger Pont, who had introduced himself to me earlier, talking to Chef Petty. I interrupted them and asked about this dish. ‘It could not be easier’, Petty exclaimed. ‘You take spinach leaves, chop them finely and then fry them for 2–3 minutes. Make sure you dry them properly. Add salt and a little bit of sugar and then add back to reheat making sure you add plenty of slivers of roasted almonds. You need to serve this immediately’, he warned.

I said my thanks, we shook hands and I was just about to walk out of the front door when Pont called me back. ‘Would you mind waiting a moment’, he asked. ‘The chef has a present for you.’ The chef went off to the kitchen and returned with a cardboard tub filled with crackling spinach. I thanked him and that evening Jancis enjoyed it as much as I had.

A farewell to Nicolas Belfrage

This lovely man of the wine trade sadly died last weekend. Thinking of him as I wrote this column brought back memories of a lovely snack I prepared in France and Spain this summer that comes from Nick’s daughter, Ixta Belfrage, who has written the recently published cookbook Mezcla. It is very simple and extremely tasty.

      1. Put anchovies, garlic and butter in a blender and whizz to a paste.

      2. Add chillies, lime zest and a little lime juice as well.

      3. Spread on pieces of bread or toast.

      4. ENJOY

The Sportsman Faversham Road, Seasalter, Whitstable, Kent CT5 4BP; tel: +44 (0)1227 273370

Chourangi 3 Old Quebec Street, London W1H 7AF; tel: +44 (0)20 3582 2710