February's Can't-Miss Dish

The Best New England Clam Chowder
By Ellen Bhang · 02/01/2022

Looking for a no-fail, mouthwatering, gonna-tell-your-friends-about-it plate? Each month, Boston Globe columnist Ellen Bhang highlights the dish you need to try right now—and something to sip alongside it. 

The Best New England Clam Chowder


On the plate: New England Clam Chowder

Where to find it: New England clam chowder is in the all-time, worldwide pantheon of regional specialties. It’s so much a part of America’s culinary landscape that you need not be from here to have fond memories of—and firm opinions about—the chunky, creamy soup. Chef Jeremy Sewall, co-owner of Boston oyster bar Row 34, is intent on making chowder in its classic form. “It’s beautiful as it is,” he says. “I want you to eat it and know that it’s clam chowder. I don’t want you to think, ‘What is this?’ If you have to ask, I’ve not done my job,” he quips. 

Along with the original in Fort Point, Sewall and his business partner, Shore Gregory, have additional locations of Row 34 in Burlington and Portsmouth, N.H. This fall, they’ll bring their  hooked-on-classics approach to a fourth branch in Cambridge’s Kendall Square. Swing by any of the restaurants to warm up with the iconic soup. Every bowl offers plenty to appreciate. 

Notes on the nosh: At Row 34, New England Clam Chowder arrives at the table steaming hot. Pearlescent in hue, the velvety soup is perfumed by nubbins of wood-smoked bacon. Long-simmered chunks of skin-on red potatoes, diced celery and onion bob happily in the bowl. The creamy broth, lightly thickened with flour, is made with the steaming liquid of clams and a generous glug of half-and-half. 

The chef prefers cherrystone clams, a classification of mid-sized, hard-shell bivalves harvested from New England waters. He notes that clams, along with pork, cream or milk, and onions, were among the staple ingredients that early New Englanders had on hand; so it’s not surprising that they combined them into one dish. “The recipe has evolved a little bit over the years, but all of those things are what make chowder great,” Sewall says. “Part of being a chef and being a good cook is honoring a dish, making sure you maintain what the original intent was, especially with the classics,” Sewall says. 

Sewall departs from tradition in one way: The house-made saltines accompanying the chowder bear no resemblance to the square soda crackers that come in a box. Row 34’s saltines are buttery and flaky, free-form in shape, and sprinkled generously with flaked sea salt. 

Sip alongside: Row 34 is famous for its excellent and varied beer selection. Alongside a cup of chowder, Suzanne Hays Bailey, general manager in Fort Point and beer director for all the restaurants, recommends a pale, crisp bottled lager that’s regularly on offer at all three locations: Aecht Schlenkerla Helles. It appears on the list as a “rauchbier” (rauch translates to “smoke”) because it offers just a hint of smoke, Hays Bailey explains. It gets that flavor from being crafted in the same kettles that the brewery uses to make beer styles using smoked malt. So while this lager doesn’t come into direct contact with smoked malt, it still bears a bit of campfire when you sip it. “The subtle, beautiful smokiness of the beer really brings out the smoked bacon flavor that’s in the chowder,” Hays Bailey enthuses. “It adds an extra level of depth, which is cozy and fun.” 

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