Restuarant review: Sportsman at Amberley

What makes a pub special?

JPCT 220814 S14350142x Amberley. The Sportsman -photo by Steve Cobb SUS-140822-153547001
JPCT 220814 S14350142x Amberley. The Sportsman -photo by Steve Cobb SUS-140822-153547001

Is it the architecture or the food; the service or the ales; the views or the bonhomie of the landlord?

The answer, of course, is a resounding yes to all these qualities.

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But at the heart of a great village pub is the people who treat it as a second home: the regulars.

The Sportsman at Crossgates, Amberley, was built on just such a philosophy.

When it was run by landlord Chris Shanahan he put those customers first in a very visible way. For some years photos of them were enlarged and hung in place of the pub sign.

He created the Miserable Old Buggers Club, and poured enormous amounts of time and beer into supporting good causes including an annual charity auction which raised thousands of pounds for good causes.

Chris is no longer behind the bar, but new landlord Mark Gomez is committed to offering a ‘real pub’ of which all regulars and visitors can be proud.

“This is not a gastro pub,” he says resolutely. “This is a real pub with good ale and good food.”

To emphasise the point, wooden numbered spoons are still used to identify the tables awaiting food orders, and darts matches are still a regular feature.

Indeed, the Sportsman is not and never has been a glamorous pub.

But it does have amazing charm - and outstanding views across the Amberley Wildbrooks, which can be viewed in panoramic splendour from the conservatory dining room at the rear and the decked seating area beyond.

The food is sourced from local produce whenever possible - and all home made, except for the chips which are bought in (‘otherwise we would spend our whole time chopping up potatoes’).

As a result, the menu is not vast, but it is pretty near perfect.

Under appropriately named head chef Paul Bacon, the Sportsman is now serving some of the best pub grub ever and it was no wonder that it was packed when we visited on a sunny Sunday at the start of this month.

Starters ranged from spicy chicken satay with cashew and mango salad and peanut dip to potted prawn and smoked salmon with a herb salad and granary toast - with prices ranging from £5.50 to £6.50.

Not only were these hugely generous helpings but this was tip-top quality.

That’s not surprising.

Mark’s background is as a chef and he has worked at a range of renowned venues.

While pastry was his speciality, he clearly understands the importance of contrasting texture and colour on a plate combined with the subtle blend of tastes.

There were three Sunday roasts on offer - free range chicken, sirloin of beef, and pork belly - priced between £11.50-£13.50.

The beef was served rare and tender. The pork was meaty and wholly flavoursome.

More than that, these were helpings of Christmas Day proportions - each crowned with a giant home-made Yorkshire pudding.

Aside from the roasts, there were four other mains on the menu - ale battered cod with chunky chips; homemade burger with Sussex charmer and bacon, sea salt chips; stout glazed baked ham, Petworth free range eggs, and chunky chips; and butternut and chickpea south Indian style curry with pilaf and mango salad.

Prices came in at £10-£12.

Finally, there was a select choice of specials on the board.

I chose a lighter main - the smoked haddock with bubble ‘n’ squeak, wholegrain mustard and a perfectly poached duck’s egg (£13.50).

The family stuck with the Sunday roasts and gave them an overwhelming seal of approval.

Mark might deny this is gastro pub food - but as pub food goes this is as good as it gets.

Finally, desserts included a sticky toffee pudding, with a salted caramel sauce, ice cream and boozy dates (£6) - a perfect twist on a favourite - and a rich chocolate crumble tart, poached strawberries, mint jelly and Baileys sauce (£6.50).

The Sportsman includes a five bed B&B, and for that reason attracts an eclectic mix of customers - from walkers enjoying the South Downs way to holiday-makers visiting the national park and day-trippers dropping in from a wide area.

But especially in the winter months, its success depends on retaining the loyalty of villagers.

It was great to recognise so many during our visit and to hear just how much they appreciated Mark’s commitment to maintaining the Sportsman as the very best of real village pubs.

As someone who has know the Sportsman over many decades - not least during the golden years under Chris and Jenny - it was great to see the pub at whiz bang peak.