By Emily J Weitz
In a town where you can constantly smell the sea in the air, making a good chowder is essential to a restaurant’s success. People come here craving it, without even realizing it. That’s why the chowder contest that takes place at Harborfest every year is so hotly contested. But chowder is a food that takes time and attention – you can’t just throw a bunch of ingredients together and hope for the best. There’s a specificity to the timing and the ingredients, and only the finest will win bragging rights to the Best Chowder in Sag Harbor.
Last year, Dockside took the Best New England Clam Chowder, and the Dock House took Best Manhattan Clam Chowder. But Rob Gettling, co-owner of the Dock House, explains that their New England batch was botched last year, and they’re looking to take both crowns at this weekend’s festivities. When you taste the subtlety of the thyme in a cup of the Dock House’s New England Clam Chowder, you might just believe in him. But then, they’re not the only ones in town with a reputation to uphold.
Stacy Sheehan, co-owner of Dockside, says that clam chowder “is always on the menu here. People expect it. Our soup of the day changes from Indian-inspired to Mexican to Italian, but we have to have clam chowder.”
Because of the abundance of clams in our local waters, Sheehan says that clams are “one of the most sustainable kinds of seafood out there.”
Dockside gets deliveries of local clams, scallops and steamers from fishermen all year. One of their purveyors used to bring his boat to the boat slip across the street from the restaurant and walk up with buckets of fresh shellfish. It doesn’t get much closer to the source.
Even though clam chowder is available throughout the year, there’s something about chowders in the fall and winter that warms you from the inside out.
“Chowder is the ultimate comfort food,” says Sheehan. “It’s equated with the water and sea towns and coastal living, at least on the East Coast.”
Adds Gettling, “There’s nothing better on a nice cool day than having a warm cup of chowder.”
So what’s the key to a great clam chowder?
“Lots of clams,” says Sheehan, “not too heavily spiced, and of course the cream.” The trick with the cream is to add it at just the right time, at just the right heat, so as not to curdle it. “You’ve got to take your time to do it right,” says Sheehan. “No shortcuts. The vegetables need to be sautéed first, and you have to have the right consistency. Not too thick, not too thin.”
For Gettling, it’s the clam juice that makes the chowder shine. The local Long Island chopped clams with all their juices is what gives the chowder flavor. And then of course, there’s the timing. Gettling starts with onions and celery, then adds in the herbs and spices, then comes the clam juice, the potatoes and the chopped clams. The mixture then needs to be thickened with rue, and at the last moment you add in the half-and-half and turn off the heat. But the real specifics? Gettling shakes his head coyly. “We’ve got to have our secrets,” he says.
At both of these title-defending restaurants, they make a fresh batch of chowder every day or two. This not only ensures the freshness of the ingredients but is also a testament to how fast they’ll go through five gallons of chowder. After all, it’s Sag Harbor, and people come here for the sea.
Dockside’s “Sag Chowder”
This is the restaurant’s take on Manhattan Clam Chowder, and won the “Best Manhattan Clam Chowder” award at HarborFest last year.
1 whole celery stalk
4 large carrots
2 large onions
6 to 8 new potatoes (diced)
1 gallon frozen chopped clams (thawed)
4 cans of ocean clam juice
1 #10 can of whole tomatoes (hand crushed)
1 tablespoon of dried thyme
3 dried bay leaves
salt and pepper to taste
• Saute celery ,onions and carrots until tender
• Add tomatoes and clam juice, and bring to boil
• Skim off any foam from the broth
• Add clams, potatoes, thyme and bay leaf
• Simmer until potatoes are soft
• Add salt and pepper to taste