Sunday, October 14, 2012

Chowdah Competition: A Tale of Four Clam Chowders - Maine vs. Minneapolis

Hello Readers:

I was recently celebrating the Autumnal season in Portland, Maine.  And by celebrating, I mean shoving every tasty morsel I saw into my happy, but rapidly expanding belly.  

As part of this ravenous rampage of the Old Port, Cape Elizabeth and Kennebunkport areas, I had the delicious privilege of sampling New England-style clam chowders.  The following weekend, I went to visit my baby sister Squidge in her first real "on her own, no roommates, post college graduation" adult apartment in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  She made me dinner - clam chowder in sourdough bread bowls.  I've always been the one to make treats for my sister, it was wonderful to have her playing chef for me! 

In honor of my chowder-extravaganza, I'd like to share my thoughts and pictures of the four clam chowders I had within a week.  I hope you have the opportunity to welcome Autumn with a great bowl of clam chowder.  (Also, if you're in the San Francisco area, check out my restaurant review of The Blue Mermaid Chowder House and Bar.) 

My first meal in Portland was lunch at DiMillo's Restaurant and Lounge a floating restaurant in Old Port, Portland, Maine.   I like "floating dining" - locally, I like going to Fulton's Crab House in nearby Downtown Disney in Orlando, Florida.  However I do find that when restaurants have a "gimmick" there is a greater chance that the cuisine suffers, so I wasn't sure if DiMillo's food would be as good as the environment.  

I ordered a cup of clam chowder and a lobster roll.  (You'll hear about my Lobster Roll in a subsequent LilyOnTheLam.Com blog post.)  The restaurant was spacious and reminded me a little too much of Florida - evidently the Thursday lunch crowd is mostly geriatric at DiMillo's.  I felt like a fetus amongst the blue hairs!  

The restaurant seemed to be overstaffed with hosts/hostesses and understaffed with servers.  My poor waiter was doing his best running between many tables while four hosts (and possibly managers?) stood at the host stand gabbing away.  I wanted to turn around and say "hey, help a server out!"  When I worked in the restaurant industry as an eager high schooler, I worked for a family-owned Italian restaurant.  There was never a "that's your job" snideness.  If a server was swamped, as support staff we pitched in to help.    

DiMillo's Clam Chowder was your basic New England style clam chowder.  I found the chowder to be too thick for my tastes.  I like my chowder to taste like a thick, creamy soup and not like white gravy.  But the flavor was good and there was a nice balance of clams to potatoes.  DiMillo's felt like an old time supper club and for that, I felt very at home and comfortable.  The fellow patrons were very sweet and a load of fun to eavesdrop on!
DiMillo's Clam Chowder

The dessert special that day was an Almond Joy cheesecake.  I was quite full from my lunch so there was no room for dessert for me.  However an adorable elderly lady at the table next to me ordered the cheesecake special.  Out comes this huge slab of the best-looking cheesecake ever.  It was all I could do to stop myself from reaching over and swiping a bite.  

The older lady took the most amazing joy in each forkful.  It was the definition of pure bliss.  After about fifteen minutes of such blissful bites, she called it quits - only managing to get through about one-third of the enormous piece.  But she giddily asked the server for a box because she was not going to miss out on the rest of the dessert.  I enjoyed watching someone so thoroughly enjoy their meal.  

So if you find yourself at DiMillo's in Portland, Maine - check out their dessert special and see if it brings as big of a smile to your face as it did for a cheesecake-loving older lady!  And maybe you'll cause other people to share in that smile.  My lunch at DiMillo's was a homey welcome to Portland.

Of the three cups of clam chowder I had in Portland, Maine; each restaurant served their chowder with Westminster Bakers Co. oyster crackers.  These crackers were amazing - light, crisp, flavorful.  I think it's a real testament to their quality that each restaurant I went to served them and I definitely need to find if they are sold locally in Tampa, Florida.  

The next day, I went to Gilbert's Chowder House.  Have you ever heard two lovelier words put together?  Chowder ... House.  I can almost hear the angels weeping at the beauty.

Gilbert's has a long rectangular dining room and it is extremely popular.  There was a line out the door for their chowder.  It is a very casual eating establishment with a wide variety of chowder lovers as patrons.  If you're looking to kick back with a pint of blueberry ale and a steaming bowl of chowder or a lobster roll with everyday citizens, check out Gilbert's Chowder House.

Gilbert's Chowder House's Clam Chowder

Gilbert's Chowder House's clam chowder was the perfect consistency - creamy mouthfeel without being overly thick or wallpaper paste-like.  The aroma and taste had a savory, "fresh from the sea" appeal.  It was cold and rainy when I was at Gilbert's Chowder House and the big styrofoam cup of chowder warmed me from the inside out.  My only complaint was that there were way too many potatoes.  The flavor was great, but I would have appreciated a better clam to potato ratio.  It was more potato chowder with clams versus clam chowder with potatoes.  But it was hearty, rich and very flavorful.  

Gilbert's was also the only restaurant I saw in the Portland, Maine area where they offered clam chowder in bread bowls. So if you prefer your chowder in a bread bowl, head over to Gilbert's.

The third Maine New England-style clam chowder I tasted was in the quaint and charming Kennebunkport, Maine restaurant Mabel's Lobster Claw.  There is a couple public parking lots in Kennebunkport and many dining choices.  However I arrived right at lunchtime and every restaurant seemed to be packed.  I parked my rental car and started walking around.  

I had read good things about Mabel's Lobster Claw, so when I saw a sign advertising the restaurant I walked closer to the sign to see if it had a map to show me where the restaurant was located.  There was an arrow pointing the direction of the restaurant but it was one mile from the main town area.  Since I had just parked my car, I figured a one mile walk in scenic Kennebunkport would be a great start.  I also assumed that since it's off the main drag, there was a good chance there would be an open table.

Unfortunately about 2 blocks into the walk, it started raining heavily.  I was prepared with a thick Nautica jacket and an umbrella.  I walked on the far edges of the sidewalk to avoid getting splashed by cars driving through puddles on the side of the road.  By the time I reached Mabel's, I was very happy to have a roof over my head out of the rain.

Mabel's is extremely homey with a courteous staff.  It had a combination New England cabin/diner feel.  The counter was covered with a delightful array of housemade desserts.  

I ordered the clam chowder and WOW!  Of my three Maine clam chowders, Mabel's Lobster Claw Restaurant's clam chowder was the best.  The chowder was like velvet - silky, hot and creamy.  Just the right combination of clams and vegetables.  The clams were amazingly tender.  I am very used to clams being overcooked and rubbery in clam chowder.  I don't know how Mabel's keeps their clams so tender, but I am mighty glad that they do.          

Mabel's Lobster Claw's Clam Chowder

Mabel's Lobster Claw Restaurant was a perfect "Vacation in Maine" style restaurant.  Friendly, fast service in a warm, laidback environment with amazing seafood.  Win, win and win!

A week later after my Portland Maine vacation, I was presented with another bowl of clam chowder - but this time I was in Minneapolis in my baby sister's kitchen.  She was using the following clam chowder recipe taken from Cooking Light, but had added carrots and more vegetables to it.  Now this may be blasphemy to New Englanders, but we Midwesterners see no evil in throwing more veggies into our chowder.  Also the recipe has BACON in it ... is there anything more wonderful than bacon?  It brings  a nice smoky quality to the creamy mouthfeel of the soup.

Clam Chowder a la Squidge

My sister had carved out hollows in sourdough bread bowls from Panera Bread.  

I couldn't find Westminster Bakers oyster crackers sadly, so I bought a local brand.  Unfortunately they were not as good as Westminster's.

The picture below is my sister's clam chowder pot, mid-fast stirring.  Like the stove in my first "real" adult apartment, my sister's stove runs way too hot.  "Low" is boiling, so it was imperative that the chowder be stirred fast and ferociously!

 And voila - my sister's clam chowder with vegetables and bacon served in a sourdough bread bowl.  Fantastic!

You may think there is some nepotism here, but of the four chowders - my sister's clam chowder was my overall favorite because the extra vegetables and bacon balanced out the richness of the clam chowder.  

For freshest, most tender clams, the award would go to Mabel's Lobster Claw.  It also wins for overall ambiance, since the town of Kennebunkport is wonderfully quaint and scenic.  

With autumn upon us, get yourself a bowl of clam chowder.  Where is your favorite place for clam chowder?  Let me know in the comments section below!

Happy Fall 2012!  Chowdah, chowdah, chowdah!

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DiMillo's Floating Restaurant on Urbanspoon Gilbert's Chowder House on Urbanspoon Mabel's Lobster Claw on Urbanspoon