Sailing the seas of chowder

With winter setting in, nothing beats a bowl of chowdah

A PINT AND A CUP<br>The New England clam chowder at Sierra Nevada served with a cold brew.

The New England clam chowder at Sierra Nevada served with a cold brew.

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

Cream of the crop
At one time, some restaurants served clear chowder and let customers add cream to taste.

When most people think clam chowder, they think “red” and “white.” But clam chowder comes in three varieties, if you count the less-popular Rhode Island clam chowder, which uses a clear broth. For you naïve knaves, if you’re ordering the red variety, flavored with tomatoes, you are sampling what is known in most parts of the country as Manhattan clam chowder. Sans tomatoes, the white-colored chowder is known as New England clam chowder, and owes its color to the half and half or cream used to flavor it.

Both generally contain potatoes, onions and celery, and occasionally carrots. Chowder is as old as cauldrons and fire, and the recipe varies not only from region to region, but also restaurant to restaurant. Back home in New Jersey, where it’s known as chowdah, it’s served with saltines or oyster crackers. On the left coast, you’ll find primarily New England clam chowder, and thanks to San Francisco’s influence, it is most often served with sourdough or in a bread bowl.

Feeling the pull toward sand and sea, I sailed around Chico and sampled some New England clam chowder. Five different restaurants offered up five variations of the creamy seaport favorite. Although quite a bit inland, Chico’s chowder offerings made this saltiest of sea dogs a little bit less homesick.

With a friend in from back East, I suggested Sierra Nevada for lunch. We sat at the bar, enjoying some Crystal Wheat with lemon, when the large white bowls of thick, piping-hot soup arrived. Served with a basket of fresh, homemade sourdough bread, the soup is filling. And for $4.95 the offering is generous. Sierra Nevada’s clam chowder is made with fresh clams and minimal vegetables, and the consistency is quite thick. This is a sure winner for taste, quality and consistency.

I couldn’t sample clam chowder and not head over to Pelican’s Roost Chowder House. The thickest of the bunch, their New England clam chowder is made with plenty of vegetables and potatoes, and is served with homemade white bread. The bread, made fresh daily, is thick and served with lots of butter. Locker biscuits, sweet biscuit-type muffins served with honey, are also available,. The meal was cheap; clam chowder, salad and bread for only $5.95. This chowder competes for taste, but its roux-like consistency makes it a bit heavy for my liking.

At Grilla Bites, the clam chowder is cooked up with half and half and lots of potatoes and clams, but is a great deal thinner than its counterparts. For a small cup to go, and two very small pieces of sourdough, you’re out $3.50. The ingredients are primo, you’re guaranteed that, but this Barnacle Bill was disappointed with the quality of the soup as a whole and the meager amount of bread.

For the franchise-loving pirate, Red Lobster offers up its version of clam chowder in a bread bowl ($5.50). The bread bowl makes up for the quality of the chowder, which isn’t the best. Chewy clams in a broth with a slightly salty taste and very thin consistency made this offering rank the lowest. The service was good, but the stuff served really wasn’t.

And last, but not least, Pommes Frites serves New England clam chowder (cups $4.50; breadbowl $6.50) just in time for the cold, rainy days only a true old salt could love. Using heavy cream and a touch of white pepper, their chowder keeps me coming back for more. While the bread dug out of the bread bowl was deposited rather unappetizingly on my plate in little wads, the quality of the soup trumped any minor faux pas. The only thing that could truly make this soup better would be the addition of fresh clams. Try it with the garlic fries, another Pommes favorite.

There are plenty of other places to find chowder in Chico—Upper Crust and Kings Catch just to name a couple. So sail forth, swashbucklers; a hot soup of the sea will cure the chills that ail ye.