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Let's eat.

From Big Sur's killer cliff-clinging eateries to Salinas' unparalleled produce, this blog aims to sniff out all things Monterey County can stomach, via picture and prose, curiosity and appetite, hand and mouth.

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Higher Power of Chowder

For locals it's a prerequisite. For natives, it's a birthright. And on Saturday, it was a battleground.

Clam chowder.

Around 15 local restaurants crafted their best in three categories as part of 2010 Monterey Wine Festival. The results reaffirmed a favorite and introduced somewhat of a stunner.

A six-judge panel (above) chaired by MPC culinary arts professor Paul Lee blind tasted the contestants on presentation, taste and texture. After I got my invitation to help, the anticipatory questions flowed—Can a chef abuse the use of bacon? How chunky is ideal? How can you not crouton? Do carrots belong? How severely should one punish an overcooked potato? Is an abundance of butter cheating or just smart?

The entrants emerged from the kitchen in camp cups and porcelain clam shells from spots like Abalonetti, Forge in the Forest and Vivolo's; insights on evaluating chowder—and all food—emerged from the judges.

Will Franz, chef over at Monterey Marriott: "You gotta ask yourself, 'If I ordered this in a restaurant, would I be happy?'"

Lee: "I look for low notes and high notes."

Our scorecards came out essentially unanimous. Agreement on the goods reigned.

One very high note: The seafood chowder that ran off with the Best Seafood Chowder crown—fresh crab, tender shrimp, a beautiful balance of herbs and a lively and light tomato broth with big crispy crouton-crostini—took my highest score home.

Its maker, meanwhile, ranked in each category, a coup of sorts for a spot many likely wrote off, consciously or unconsciously, as a tourist trap without the chops to be tops: Louie Linguini's. Chef Pedro Barroso also took home third in the traditional clam chowder and most creative categories, bagging $1,000 across the three contests in the process.

The champ in the most contested category, though, won't come off as much of a surprise—at least to our readers, who have voted Old Fisherman's Grotto their favorite chowderheads for years. Chef Juan Ponce (in hat, right center) and his mastery of rich-but-not-too-viscous thickness, garlic accents and tender chunks of fresh clam rock on. His elixir also scored crowd favorite consensus—and the shiny copper pot that comes with the People's Choice Award.

Cafe Fina's Chef Jeff Linscomb took second and $350. And I should've stockpiled some chowder for lunch.