Doggone it but it’s time to stop talking about ribs and start talking about food that sticks to your ribs. Comfort food, don’t you know. And few comfort foods are more comforting than a seafood stew. Who doesn’t crave a hot chowder when the rain falls sideways and the winds come down from the north?
Just the thought of those days has prompted us to consider some of our most memorable seafood meals, and our favorite places to get a warming soup, stew, or chowder. If you find yourself near the water, any water, at any time this month (the month of “Big Lar’Tober,” according to the Stevens Point Firemen’s calendar on display in our area), these meals are worth a detour:
Cioppino, Sotto Mare, San Francisco: From Santa Cruz north virtually every seafood restaurant offers its take on the tomato-based Italian seafood stew, but you really need to hone your focus on San Francisco, where the concentration of Italians and aquatic life reaches critical mass. While there is decent cioppino to be found on Fisherman’s Wharf, most notably at the not-coincidentally-named Cioppino’s, San Francisco’s best cioppino is found at this quintessentially Italian seafood restaurant in North Beach. You know the second you walk through the door that this place takes its cioppino seriously. That seriousness follows through to the presentation; the stew comes to your table in a stainless-steel cauldron, and it’s served with bibs. You’ll understand why as soon as you tuck into all the shellfish – crab and more crab, accompanied by clams, mussels, scallops, and shrimp. The menu calls it “the best damn cioppino,” and it’s no lie. Runner-up: The less traditional but still yummy cioppino at Seattle’s Chinook’s at Salmon Bay.
Conch Chowder, nine one five, Key West: There cannot be a story on soups and stews without an entry from Florida. The problem is that nothing is particularly native to the place, except alligators in the swamps. For example, conch chowder – a red chowder, unlike the Boston clam variety — can be traced to the Bahamas; fortunately Florida has managed to improve on the original. At nine one five, a home-turned-restaurant on Duval Street, classic conch chowder is given a smoky twist by the addition of chipotle and a touch of smoked paprika. That helps the dish move past its Caribbean roots and become something unique, special, and quintessential Key Western. The lagniappe: the service is great and the setting can’t be beat, especially if you hold out for a spot on the balcony.
She-Crab Soup, vacant: We dare not infringe on the territory of our food writer and Charleston native Mike Lintal, for whom she-crab soup is something of a religion, albeit a lesser religion when compared to, say, doughnuts. Or beer. But we leave the choice of the ultimate version of this delicacy to Mike, with hopes that he write about it soon.
Gumbo, Cochon Butcher, New Orleans: Listen: We love Cochon Butcher the way we love few other eating establishments. Among all the pretentious restaurants that pepper New Orleans, all the faux-humble places, the wrought-irons fakeries, and the claimed inventors of nothing in particular, Cochon Butcher stands out as the exact opposite. Cochon Butcher is all about food, period. No sprayed-on atmosphere, no pretend anything. Just the best New Orleans food in all its glorious forms. Their muffuletta has already been proclaimed our favorite sandwich on earth, and their gumbo is No. 1 in a city that’s renowned as the home of gumbo. This thick, earthy and complex stew needs to be experienced in its element, where the flavors of file, seafood, and roux combine with the unique aroma of the Crescent City. And why would you ever stop at a bowl when a quart of this delicious mélange is only $18? One more time before we go: God bless Cochon Butcher.
Clam Chowder, B&G’s Oysters, Boston: Clam chowder in Boston is the stuff of which wars are made. First, don’t you dare bring any of that Manhattan tomato … um, stuff into the competition. That’s like bringing deep-dish to a New York City pizza throwdown. Second, be prepared to defend your choices, with your dukes if necessary. We like to think we’re above the fray, and so we endorse the chowder at Barbara Lynch’s Oyster Bar. The winner goes to some pretty ridiculous lengths to come out on top – and yes, we consider making your own oyster crackers out of puff pastry ridiculous. But everything about Lynch’s version is just so right, from the chunks of bacon to the ridiculously fresh and meaty clams to a broth that’s as light as is legal in Boston, and exquisitely flavored with clam liquor and white wine. Even the presentation rocks. If we ever decided we wanted to look like the Michelin Man, this is the meal we would do it on.