LYME, N.H. - My quest for the best New England clam chowder started when I was young. Trips to the Connecticut coast or to dining rooms in Hartford, Conn., with my parents and sister always included seafood restaurants. I began what was to evolve into lifelong obsession: finding the best chowder. I think I've found it.
Clam chowder is not exotic fare. It's common on menus in landlocked cities like Fargo, or at seafood meccas like Cape Cod. Last week we traveled across northern New England from Burlington, Vt., to Bar Harbor, Maine. I sampled chowder at every stop, expecting to find the best at a clam shack on the coast of Maine or in a harbor town in Massachusetts. I ordered a lot of chowders: from North Conway in New Hampshire's White Mountains, to Bar Harbor, Kennebunkport, Scarborough and Portland in Maine, to Portsmouth, N.H., to the historic shipbuilding town of Newburyport, Mass. All lived up to the New England promise of well-made clam chowder.
The best? I found it inland in the Connecticut River Valley, across the river from where we live when we're in Vermont. The 15-minute drive to Lyme, N.H., takes us to the Latham House Tavern on the town green. It's a hybrid tavern/fine dining place adjacent to a country inn. Good food. Excellent service. The extensive menu features - you guessed it - New England clam chowder. The nearest "big water" is not the ocean. It's the Connecticut River, about a mile west of the restaurant's door.
Clam chowder recipes begin with the basics: clams diced or chopped (rarely whole), clam juice, heavy cream, flour, potatoes diced or cubed, maybe bacon bits, onion, sometimes celery or shredded carrot, combinations of spices - preparation timed to create the classic thick, white chowder. The chowders I sampled along the coast were of that kind. Good, but the Latham House Tavern's was better.
When I ordered, the server whispered: "Our chowder is different. Still want to try it?" I said, yes. She delivered an unexpected delight.
Instead of the thick, pasty soup of traditional chowder, the tavern's was a lighter broth-not water-thin, but not pudding-thick. The broth steamed with chunks of new red potatoes, pork belly, herbs and spices that complemented the sea, salt and clam aroma. The clams, in presentation and flavor, made the chowder special. Whole littleneck clams (the smallest clam variety) in open shells, simmered in the broth. I scraped the clams out of the shells and into the broth. It doesn't get any fresher for clams in chowder. The bowl was topped with three generous slices of crusty sourdough bread, just right for dipping up every drop of chowder. One bowl makes a meal.
My chowder survey is not scientific. It's subjective. I've been at it for a long time; I know good clam chowder. During our coastal swing through seafood country, all traditional chowders were good. Latham House Tavern's recipe of savory broth and clams-in-the-shell was exceptional. Advice for chowder fans: Find Lyme, N.H., just off Interstate 91's exit 14. So far, they have the best clam chowder.
But I'm still looking.