Comfort in a Bowl – A Merrimack Valley Chowder Crawl
When it’s cold outside, there’s nothing better than a bowl of something hot and fragrant, and when you live in New England, chowder is the go-to option. We tasted chowders from around the region and found excellent choices in a range of dining styles. Whether you want a special spot for date night, a joint where you can chat with the locals, or a place to pick up soup to eat at your table at home, there’s a chowder house for you. [Please note: At the time of publication, the restaurants noted in this article were offering special services in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Please call or visit their websites for updates.]
Seaglass Restaurant & Lounge
Seaglass is perched above Salisbury Beach, so if you time your visit right, you can sample your chowder while watching the waves as the sky turns from peach to midnight blue. In the evening, a fire crackles in the hearth and the lights are low, so you can see what’s happening outside. When we were there, a storm was brewing: Huge waves rolled and crashed onto the shore. It was busy on a Saturday evening, and guests were settled in with glasses of wine and brightly-hued cocktails.
The surprise of Seaglass’s chowder was its friendly aroma of “loaded baked potato,” with just the slightest suggestion of the sea. The scent was explained with the first bite. Chunks of red-skinned potatoes mingled with large pieces of surf clam. The smokiness of hickory bacon was front and center, permeating the creamy broth. If you pay attention, you can even find dark brown nuggets of crisply fried bacon. Oniony notes provide a subtle background sweetness. It’s a satisfying clam chowder, particularly for bacon fans. And the setting can’t be beat.
A1 Deli Restaurant
This Haverhill favorite offers “home-cooked specials every day,” including corn chowder on Thursdays and fish chowder on Fridays and Saturdays. We were seated by a server named Jamie, who has been part of the A1 family since her 30-year-old daughter was 9. Jamie bubbled with praise for hardworking husband and wife owners Paula and Robert Meidanis, and Robert’s business partner and brother, Anthony. Paula talked about their wonderful sauteed Italian dishes. Jamie couldn’t say enough about the butternut squash, and brought us a dish to sample. Robert described the popularity of their gravy, and rushed to get tidbits of roasted lamb and pork, meatloaf and vegetables. Meanwhile, other diners arrived, some of them having traveled 30 miles for their weekly A1 fix.
A1’s fish chowder is simple comfort food. It came to the table steaming, with golden orbs of butter floating on its brothy base. The scent carried just a hint of fish with an endnote of lemon. The first spoonful revealed chunks of haddock and soft, centimeter-size cubes of potato. The broth was enriched with the fish’s cooking stock and sweetened with onions. Salt and pepper were the only seasonings. Chef Don Durgin has been making this simple fisherman’s chowder for more than 25 years. It’s the product of a recipe that Robert acquired while working at the legendary Mayflower Diner in Quincy, which his father owned. Robert says flour isn’t used to thicken the broth, so it doesn’t become gummy.
If you aren’t in the mood to cook but don’t feel like dining out, Chowder Factory, owned by Plenus Group Inc., is the solution. Stop by the store to pick up clam, shrimp and corn, or seafood chowder. The factory supplies prepared foods for private labeling to companies such as Omaha Steaks, Whole Foods Market and the Boston Chowda Co. Chowder Factory produces more than 7 million pounds of food per year, and clam chowder is its No. 1 product.
The store is packed with refrigerator and freezer units displaying some of the company’s 300 products, including everything from lobster mac and cheese to Tuscan tomato soup. But I was there for the fish chowder.
Plenus Group Inc. CEO Joe Jolly says, “The thing that makes it special is that we steam the fish separately so it keeps its identity, and then break it into chunks for the chowder.”
He wasn’t just whistling Dixie: The quart I brought home contained pieces of haddock that were nearly the size of my palm. When gently heated, the aroma carried the suggestion of fish and a hint of something ineffable. The soup is thicker than A1’s broth, and snowy white. There’s a bit of bite left in the celery, offering textural contrast to the creaminess of the cubed potatoes. Of all the chowders I tasted, this one had the most sophisticated flavor profile, with the inclusion of white wine elevating it to that of a bouillabaisse.
Hooked Seafood Restaurant
Hooked Seafood Restaurant in Manchester, N.H., is located just a few doors down from the Palace Theatre, which makes it a great option for date night. A life-size hammerhead shark floats above the entryway, and oceanic art decorates the walls and ceiling. Succulents rest on ink-black tables like landlocked anemones.
Hooked offers seafood chowder, and it’s the most colorful of those I sampled, with triangular chunks of red-skinned potato, coral curves of lobster and shrimp, and flecks of fresh oregano, thyme and rosemary. The scent of garlic is strong, and when paired with the aroma of butter and seafood, it’s reminiscent of scampi. This is also the most texturally varying chowder of the group, which is not surprising given the variety of fish that’s included (haddock, tilapia and scallops join the crustaceans). It is quite thick, but the viscosity comes in part from the shreds of fish that intermingle with the creamy soup base — so while dense, it isn’t gloopy. You can follow your chowder with a wide assortment of seafood entrees.