It’s really easy to turn clam chowder disgusting. Maybe it’s my East Asian heritage speaking here, but come on – you’re cooking dairy in large quantities over heat. And some of that cooked dairy gets canned for mass consumption! Gloop gloop.
As expected for a coastal city, however, Seattle is lucky enough to be filled with great chowder spots. Many of them are very well-known in the community and fill their own niches. Today we have Duke’s Chowder House, the most high end of the famous chowder restaurants. Locations in this small chain are beautifully appointed with blue-and-white-checkered napkins, real silverware, themed art, and servers, setting Duke’s apart from other casual spots where you go in, grab a cup, and leave. I’ve been to two Duke’s with beautiful water views. The first was Lake Union, many years ago; recently, I was at the Alki location.
Alki, along with Golden Gardens, is one of the only places a Seattle resident can experience something close to the stereotypical yellow sand beaches overrun with swimsuits and parties like the ones in California. This particular Saturday, Alki was hosting the Seafair Pirates Landing as part of the huge schedule of nautical events that make up the annual Seafair. This involved people dressed as pirates taking over boats and taking them to the sand, where dense crowds of families gawked.
Duke’s sourdough bread is some of the best. What’s striking is how easy it is to eat. Sourdough has always been a homely, populist bread – it was so closely associated with miners going out west looking for gold that they became known as “sourdoughs.” The reason these miners ate sourdough was because they couldn’t get normal yeast so far from civilization, so created sourdough starters – mixes of flour and water – and used these starters as a colony for wild yeast in the air. This was then used to leaven bread. Because wild yeast isn’t tasteless like commercial yeast, the bread comes out sour.
Sourdough often comes with a tough crust you really have to tear from the bouncy white insides with your teeth, but Duke’s sourdough bread doesn’t require any struggling. The caramelized, crackling crust is thin and tender, the insides are extra soft and fluffy, and both the bread and the butter come warmed. This is how you do bread service.
My table ordered the Super Calamari Steak Strips, All Hail Caesar Salad, Wild Avocado Mousse Halibut, and every chowder on the menu with the Full Fleet.
The calamari strips, described as “Tender, large squid steaks cut in house and made-to-order with homemade tequila lime aioli and wasabi aioli for dipping” ($9.90) was superb. These sauces were delicious on their own but overpowered the calamari. The menu didn’t mention the apple salad which provided a welcome sweet contrast to the strips.
A huge turn-off for some people (but not me) is seafood that is rubbery. These calamari strips were not rubbery in the least, and truly lived up to the steak name.
The clamp strips were nestled in a bowl that was a cheese crisp! To make cheese crisps, you can either bake them or fry them, but the basic principle is to get the cheese to give up some of its fat to heat, leaving a dried-out chip. I like using parmesan, cheddar, and mozzarella.
This cheese crisp wasn’t crispy all the way through – the darker stuff on the outside is crispy while the lighter inside still has some softness to it. A nice textural contrast that made for fun chewing.
The All Hail Caesar Salad ($7.90 – $15.60, depending on options) is a Seattle Times winner. Duke’s has a lot of awards.
Next up, the Wild Avocado Mousse Halibut – “Seasoned and topped with an avocado mint radish mousse, with local vegetable and an organic baby red potato prawn cake ($27.90 for the 5 oz filet). This wasn’t good. The fish was dry. The prawn cake wasn’t there, although the red potatoes on their own were the best roasted potatoes I’ve had. The potatoes and sweet peas didn’t harmonize with the avocado mint radish flavors of the mousse. I feel sorry for the fish who had this unglamorous fate.
The main event is the chowder. Duke’s is a three-time Seattle Chowder Cook-Off Winner. These chowders are: Award Winning Clam Chowder (herby and New England style), North By Northwest Seafood Chowder (salmon and mussels, cioppino style), Dungeness Crabby Baby Bisque (creamy and with a kick from sherry), Lobster Mobster Pernod Chowder (sweet-potato based with chewy baby langostinos), and Ragin’ Cajun Chicken Corn Chowder (corn chowder with creole seasonings). I tried all of them for $14.90. Chowder samplers are a great idea.
The New England style chowder was wonderful and it’s easy to see how it won awards. While the rest were delicious, none of them besides the Ragin’ Cajun corn chowder captured the essence of chowder as well as the traditional New England one. They presented their own flavors, like salmon and tomato and sherry, which took over the subtle sweetness of the traditional white chowder. What I’m trying to get at is that while all the imaginative chowders were delicious the basic chowder was so good that it left everything else behind so I’ll probably only be ordering that from now on.
My chowder order came with a recipe card for Manhattan-style chowder (red and tomato-based, unlike the white, dairy-based New England style). Another extra touch that makes Duke’s a great dining experience.