Appetizers
June 14, 2011
Chowder competition meets steamed clams in Monterey

crowds_sm.jpgWe were hopscotching around Monterey over the weekend and were reminded of how many seafood restaurants populate the area.

Which segued nicely with Saturday's second annual West Coast Chowder Competition, at which 26 of the 34 entries were from local restaurants. The categories were "clam chowder," "seafood chowder" and "creative chowder," judged by a panel of 10 "food experts." We came upon the event by serendipity and joined the crowd for our share of sampling, too.

That contest was conjoined with the 35th annual Monterey Wine Festival, at which 45 wineries poured tastes (www.montereywine.com). It all happened at the Custom House Plaza, behind the Portola Hotel.

Meanwhile, over on nearby Fisherman's Wharf, we dropped by Cafe Fina for a big bowl of its steamed clams. Its clam chowder took second place in last year's competition; this year, its sister restaurant, Domenico's, took second place in the "creative chowder" category.

But about those steamed clams... They're cherrystones from the East Coast, which have more flavor and a better texture than the Manila clams most often used in the dish.

"We keep everything simple, with the philosophy that less is more," said restaurateur Dominic Mercurio. "The base of the broth is the natural salty clam juice that seeps out when the clams open (upon cooking). We cook the clams in butter, white wine, fresh garlic and fresh Italian flatleaf parsley."

Under attack from our cocktail forks, the meaty clams didn't get to swim for long in the buttery, garlicky broth. And we lost count of how many slices of Italian sesame twist bread we dipped into that fragrant broth (the bread is from the Palermo Baking Co. in neighboring Seaside). Afterward, we sipped some Amaro Averna, the Sicilian herbal digestif first concocted in 1868. You should, too. Cafe Fina: (831) 372-5200, www.cafefina.com.

An aside: As much as we enjoy Fisherman's Wharf, we're put off by the hawkers who stand in front of some of the restaurants, loudly soliciting passers-by to sample their clam chowders. Best advice: Keep walking.

Back to the West Coast Chowder Competition. And the winners were:

For clam chowder:
1. Characters Sports Bar & Grill (Monterey)
2. Loulou's Griddle in the Middle (Monterey)
3, Club XIX (Pebble Beach)

For seafood chowder:
1. Fishhopper (Monterey)
2. Flaherty's (Carmel)
3. Sam's Chowder House (Half Moon Bay)

For creative chowder:
1. Isabella's (Monterey)
2. Domenico's (Monterey)
3. Duke's Chowder House (Seattle)

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