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Café to Café


Chowder, Part 2

By Ronald Holden

We've been eating and writing about chowders these days, specifically "New England style" clam. Most of the examples served as chowders in Seattle are thickened with starchy potatoes, or else with a roux based on bacon fat. The result, at its best, is a silky velouté; at its worst, thick as paste.

Salty's , second highest-grossing restaurant in Seattle (after the Space Needle) has the city's best view from Alki Beach but not, alas, its best chowder. The menu promises a "World Famous" seafood chowder of surf clams, bay shrimp, and scallops along with potatoes and applewood-smoked bacon. What I tasted was soft-boiled potatoes with an after-taste of white pepper, as "bland & canned" as they come. The cup was $5, but the view was worth a million bucks.

Launched by Dave Harris (The Other Coast cafe in Ballard and Jitterbug in Wallingford; he succumbed to cancer in 2012), Seattle Fish Company, north of the Junction in West Seattle, was purchased by Jon Daniels, who'd spent a decade running City Fish, the oldest fishmonger in the Pike Place Market. Nothing fancy here; it's a fish shop with a grill, after all. The big draw (aside from the high quality of the seafood) is a daily happy hour with discounted fish & chips. The clam chowder, $5 for a cup, is made with east coast surf clams enhanced with Manilas from Hood Canal. (Fact is, there's no commercial catch of Manilas in this state.) Looks gummy, but wasn't (photo).

SPORT , the John Howie spot opposite the Space Needle, is not to be confused with Cafe Sport at the Market, which belongs to Tom Douglas. Howie, whose name is understandably connected with steaks (John Howie Steak in Bellevue), also has a thing for seafood; his first Bellevue restaurant is called Seastar. Some years back, he had the temerity to enter a chowder cook-off on Canada's east coast, Prince Edward Island, to be exact. He came in second. The following year, he won. The PEI chowder, alas, is no longer on the menu. The version that's served in his restaurants these days isn't as aggressive but still includes Atlantic sea clams and a fragrant broth. Six bucks.

Hook & Plow , in the gleaming dining room of the Seattle Marriott on the Elliott Bay waterfront, plays a trick on you: the croutons atop their chowder aren't bread at all but crispy potato cubes fried in duck fat. And smoky bacon, maybe even pancetta, And big chunks of clams, too, razor clams at that, according to the menu. Unfortunately, once you get past the top layer, the rest of the chowder is thick and virtually flavorless despite the appearance of bits of leeks and celery. On the plus side, though, only $5 a cup.

One day someone will explain how a kitchen takes all these aromatic and savory ingredients and removes the flavor. A sort of reverse hot sauce, perhaps? Bottle it like Tabasco and call it Mancasapore, Or Mrs. Bland's Magic Unseasoning. Where's Guy Fieri when you need him? Where's Emeril Lagasse? Bam!

Soundview Cafe is a block or so south of the Pike Place Market's dueling "lunch counters for tourists" (Athenian and Lowell's). When it opens at 8 a.m., it already has two or three pots of chowder going on its salad-bar cafeteria line. On the plus side, it's just five bucks for a cup, and the view from its window tables is spectacular. The chowder itself is unremarkable, on the order of Ivar's, and rather heavy on the celery. (No, Yelper, those colorful bits in your bowl weren't carrots but red skinned potatoes.) Still, you could do a lot worse at 8 a.m.

And so, at long last, the Big Reveal, the three chowders that stood out in a sea of shellfish. They also happen to be the most expensive.

At the Market, the chowder at Steelhead Diner. Kevin Davis has handed over the day-to-day reins to Anthony Polizzi, but it's Davis's commitment to local seafood that drives the menu. Almost alone among local chowders, it's made with razor clams harvested on Polly Creek, in Alaska. It also includes apple-wood smoked bacon and is drizzled with truffle oil. It's $9 a cup on the dinner menu.

If you grew up on the west coast, as I did, you may remember going down to the beach at low tide and digging for razor clams; the Alaskan version is much larger. The clams are harvested on a beach at the mouth of Polly Creek, a remote beach on Cook Inlet that's accessible only by boat or float plane. Even so, it's a commercially sustainable harvest. The best part of Steelhead's chowder is that it has the consistency of a cream soup, not library paste. This chowder was so redolent of clams and bacon that the truffle oil was gilding the lilly. Really, chef, you could cut back to a drop, a dollop, you don't need the whole streak! (Editor's note: truffle, yum!)

Another stunning chowder at The Market is found at Tankard & Tun, the seafood-centric pub atop Pike Brewery. It goes by Le Chowder, and it's probably the most inclusive cup in town ($9, $6 at Happy Hour). In addition to clams, there are mussels, rock fish, and sockeye salmon in a creamy, garlicky broth with slightly underdone potatoes and a showering of shredded kale. This was so good I even ate the kale, and I hate kale.

And lastly, Adana's clam chowder, up on Cap Hill, which is clearly the most exotic of the line-up. Clear, because the base is miso, not milk or cream. There's no butter anywhere near this version. Instead, into the house-made miso go Manila clams (from Taylor Shellfish), white potatoes, sweet potatoes, leeks, and a dash of sake, all flavored with a little-known condiment, a black garlic oil called muya. It's typically used in Japan to enhance ramen, but Shota Nakajima makes his own version for this chowder. First, he slow-roasts the garlic until it turns black, then pounds it in a mortar with (get this!) lard. Not sesame oil. Not canola oil. Lard. No shortcuts, no Moulinex, no food processor. Mashed by hand in a mortar. The resulting droplets are, quite literally, little flavor bombs. I doubt you've ever tasted anything like this, certainly not in Seattle.

The chowder is part of Adana's $39, three-course dinner menu (you pick any three items out of nine dishes, choices like octopus, pork belly, udon with shrimp, salmon nanban). On its own, à la carte, it's $15. For some, it's not clam chowder. But why not? No dairy? No thickeners? Go try this. You owe it to yourself.

February 2018

Ronald Holden is a Northwest native who's been writing about local food for over 40 years. His latest book, Forking Seattle, is available on Amazon.com. He blogs at Cornichon.org and contributes often to Forbes.com.


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