Calgary Ocean Wise Chowder Chowdown 2013
Cross-posted from Calgary is Awesome.
Disclaimer: Calgary is Awesome was a media sponsor of this event, so members of the CIA editorial team were able to attend for free. However, I was not obligated to write this post and opinions are my own.
It was freezing outside, to say the least, as dozens gathered at the Hyatt Regency downtown to warm up with 11 (!) hearty chowders prepared by the city’s top chefs at the inaugural Ocean Wise Chowder Chowdown last week. The chowdown was a fun way for the Vancouver Aquarium to raise awareness about its Ocean Wise program, (did you know that November is Ocean Wise Month?) which partners directly with restaurants, retailers, food service providers and suppliers to promote sustainable seafood choices and help preserve ocean wildlife.
Aside from the seafood, the entire Chowder Chowdown event had a very “green” vibe – attendees were each given a wooden spoon that they were asked to keep to sample all the chowders, and one glass to sample all the local beer pairings. The samples themselves were served in compostable cups, though I’m not sure whether all that cream and fat in the chowders are compost-friendly! Three awards were handed out that evening – the judges, which included food critic John Gilchrist, Chef Michael Allemeier of SAIT, food writer/blogger Dan Clapson and Rick Therrien of Albion Fisheries, who supplied all the seafood for the event, selected the Best Beer Pairing and Overall Winner of the event, while attendees got to vote for the People’s Choice Award.
Best Beer Pairing
The best beer pairing went to Craft Beer Market and their Ocean Wise Grey Cod, Chorizo & Chicharron Chowder, which was paired with a casked Scottish Heavy Ale from Big Rock. Craft had actually worked with Big Rock to create an especially hoppy version of the ale to go with the chowder, so it was a well-deserved win. I unfortunately was driving, so had stopped doing the beer pairings by the time I got to Craft’s booth, but the chowder itself proved to be very popular, partly due to the giant chicharron poking up out of everyone’s cups, and of course, the smoky flavour of the chowder, though I personally wasn’t a fan of the chewy chorizo.
Thomsons Restaurant‘s Seafood Chowder with Ocean Wise Smoked Salmon won the People’s Choice award by a landslide. While the name of the chowder was simple, the composition was anything but; as I approached their booth, there seemed to be a lot going on – a ladle of the chowder, then a sprinkling of this, a dash of that, a drizzle of herb oil and then the pièces de resistance: a tomato-crab-potato cake and a crispy kale chip. While I usually expect chowders to be thick and hearty, all the vegetable toppings made the dish seem light and fresh-tasting. The tomato-crab-potato cake was so good, it was super-tender in the middle, and bursting with crab and tomato flavour. While I didn’t vote for it, it was obvious why it was the favourite.
Everyone had a good laugh when MC Buzz Bishop told Sous Chef Rebecca House that her prize was a one-night stay at the Hyatt (where Thomsons is located), plus a free dinner at… Thomsons!
Calgary Chowder Chowdown 2013 Winner
And the winner of the inaugural Calgary Ocean Wise Chowder Chowdown is… downtownfood! Chef Darren Maclean has been on quite the roll this year, having won the 3rd Annual Poutine Crawl in the spring, and more recently, picking up bronze at the Calgary Gold Medal Plates competition. The dtf Modern Chowder was Chef Maclean’s version of a Cambodian dish called amok, a steamed fish curry with a coconut cream and galangal base.
The soup was very complex, combining all five tastes – sweetness from the corn and reduced coconut broth, savouriness from fish sauce, spiciness from Thai chilies, tartness from lime and umami from all the seafood and Humpback prawns. There was also a variety of textures, from gooey okra to the crunchy housemade rice chip on top.
Still, the win took me by surprise because although the soup was delicious, I didn’t get that “comfort” from all the different flavours and the relatively thin broth that I would associate with a thick, stick-to-your-bones chowder. Chef Maclean argued though, that if you asked someone in Cambodia or southeast Asia to make you a “chowder”, this is probably what they’d come up with. Maybe.
The Otha Chowdas
My favourite chowder was the Northumberland Strait Lobster Chowder from River Café. After sampling many chowders, a lot of them started tasting the same – this one, on the other hand, had an instant, distinctive lobster flavour. My mom, who is always trying to perfect her lobster bisque, would love this. The chowder was topped with a grating of sea urchin bottarga, adding a rich, umami flavour.
Another favourite was Catch & The Oyster Bar‘s Salted (Black) Cod & Humboldt Chorizo Chowder. Chef Groves joked that his chowder was the real deal, because it was nice and thick, unlike some of his other competitors, which was something I kept in mind as I tasted the others. I agree that this was definitely one of the thicker chowders in the competition, with nice big chunks of fish and squid, and a pleasant spicy flavour from the chorizo.
I was also a fan of Model Milk‘s Humpback Prawn & Mussel Chowder. This chowder was very unique as it had a mustard-curry base, as well as lentils and chickpeas. Still, Chef Justin Leboe managed to find room for lots of seafood! I counted two prawns and three mussels in my tiny sample cup, which was a pleasant surprise, compared to some of the more stingy samples I got.
The Fairmont Palliser made a classic clam chowder which Executive Sous Chef Craig Nazareth explained to me has been on the menu since the Palliser opened, so almost 100 years! The current version on the menu has been made by cooks who have been working at the Palliser for 23 years, so it’s definitely a classic, well-practiced recipe. The judges got a version topped with sturgeon, but otherwise, it’s a straightforward New England-style clam chowder.
Bistro Rouge gave a nod to local producers with their Halibut, Jensen Corn & House Smoked Bacon Chowder. While good seafood is hard to come by in landlocked Alberta, Chef Ron Jacobson still tried to make the chowder as local as he could with Jensen corn from Taber and house-smoked bacon made with Alberta pork. Another classic-tasting chowder.
Though “Smoked Pacific Halibut & Savoury Manila Clam Chowder” sounds like a heavy, smoky affair, Blink‘s offering was actually quite light, thanks to lots of vegetables (though no shortage of clams and fish) and a drizzle of lemon oil at the end. The only downside to the chowder was that it was paired with The Grizzly Paw‘s Big Head Nut Brown Ale, which overpowered the chowder.
The surprise of the night for me was Sky 360. Perched on top of a tourist attraction, the restaurant doesn’t really get a lot of attention for its food. The smoked salmon, candied scallop and double wild boar bacon in their chowder were all done in-house, and they slipped in a dollop of Devonshire cream in everyone’s cup for good measure. The first sip of the soup was smoky, which is one of my favourite flavours, and it made me think, “This came from Sky 360?!” Although many people enjoyed it, others found the chowder was too much on the sweet side.
Last – and unfortunately least – was Redwater Rustic Grille‘s Pacific Oyster & Parsnip Chowder. One of my fellow diners, who loves parsnips, was excited to try this creative addition to chowder, but that’s all you could taste – parsnip. I was able to find a small oyster in my cup, but many couldn’t find any seafood, which was disappointing.
I’m crossing my fingers that some of the restaurants will be offering their chowders on their regular menus – if not, I’ll see you next year, wooden spoon in hand!