Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Great Chowder Search--Part II

Is it that hard to make a good clam chowder on the northern Oregon coast? Apparently so.

Here is our evaluation of the final three chowders sampled (not necessarily enjoyed) during our stay in the Cannon Beach area. I should emphasize that we did not eat at every restaurant serving chowder, so perhaps the ultimate chowder is still out there waiting for us.

Our search took us south on Highway 101 to
Third PlacePacific Oyster (Bay City): We found this restaurant through our somewhat outdated copy of Jane and Michael Stern’s Roadfood. Pacific Oyster is part seafood market, part restaurant, and part oyster shucking and packing plant. From inside the restaurant you can watch the shucking process through large observation windows. Located at the end of a pier, the restaurant gave us a view of the bay through its large front windows.

We again started with soups – chowder for Chuck and cioppino for me. My cup of cioppino had a tasty tomato-based broth that contained green pepper and onion and that may have been too heavily seasoned with oregano and thyme. The soup contained clams (three in-shell and numerous pieces), an in-shell mussel, bay shrimp, and crab pieces. It was good, but not memorable.

Chuck’s chowder again tasted mostly of potato with undertones of bay leaf and thyme. Although the bowl contained a large quantity of clams and potatoes, it didn’t include a predominate taste of clams.

We again ordered lunch entrees. Chuck made the better choice with his Tillamook cheddar grilled cheese sandwich on sourdough bread with fries. While a grilled cheese sandwich is a grilled cheese sandwich, this one was exceptional for its flavor and texture with just the right degree of melting.

I ordered from the “lighter side” menu and chose a two piece halibut fish and chips platter. Have there ever been two smaller pieces of fish? They look like fish sticks. The coating was extra crisp because the fish was way over cooked.

I should have ordered a bowl of the cioppino.

Second PlaceNorma’s Ocean Diner (Seaside): This is a fairly famous Oregon coastal restaurant that has also been featured in the Stern’s Roadfood. In 2005, Bon App├ętit magazine named Norma’s clam chowder one of the ten top soups in the United States. Oh, really?

We’ve gotten smart. First, I am now carrying a shaker of white pepper with me to boost the chowder’s flavor. (A trick we learned from Cook’s Lobster House on Bailey Island, Maine.) Second, stick with the chowder. Norma’s gets good reviews across the menu, but my new commandment is don’t go further into the menu.

So our bowls of chowder arrived. Looking promising, it was medium thick and full of clams and potatoes. But again it was lacking that briny ocean flavor you want in good chowder. When I eat chowder I want to taste clams in every bite. Even when there isn’t a clam on your spoon, the white creamy base should have that ocean flavor. Norma’s didn’t. But it was still better than the four previous versions.

So here we are at our top chowder. Will this only be better at the margins or is there good clam chowder on the Oregon coast?

For an answer we give you, in
First PlaceYe Old Driftwood Inn (Cannon Beach): Sometimes a lack of knowledge can be a good thing. We went to the Driftwood on the recommendation of one of the campground hosts. Had I a chance to check on, I would have learned that the Driftwood is ranked 24th out of 24 restaurants in Cannon Beach. Granted, the three web reviews never discussed the food. Two complained that the restaurant is dark. It is. It is an old persons’ restaurant with dark paneling and dark carpeting. The third took offense at the sign indicating that public restrooms were a block away. (Which is true--if you’re not a customer.) Go figure.

We ordered two bowls of chowder and a small loaf of warm sourdough bread. The chowder came and looked to be on the think milky side. We took spoons to bowls, sipped, looked to the heavens, and exclaimed “At last!” This was chowder. This was excellent chowder. This was New England-style chowder--clams, red skin-on potatoes, and onions.

To begin, it tasted of clams. Every spoonful tasted of clams. Beautiful briny clams. Second, it tasted of dairy – both butter and half and half or cream. Have you ever eaten premium ice cream? Do you remember the slightly slippery almost oily feel in your mouth? It’s butterfat!!! Beautiful butterfat. The Driftwood’s chowder is the only one of the six we tasted that had this.

We learned from the waitress that the original recipe came with a cook from Boston. So we went to Oregon to eat Boston chowder. Small world.

Leaving no pastry uneaten. . .

A quick stop at the Cannon Beach bakery brought forth a plate of caloric goodness. At the top of the photo is the apple fritter--fried dough with apples and cinnamon and covered with a sugar glaze; the bottom left is the almond bear claw--flakey pastry with almond sliced inside and outside; the bottom right is the caramel pecan roll--sugary sweet and great when warmed and served with butter.

On to the next search.

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