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In Bay Shore, Long Island, where huge boats depart to Ocean Beach and other Fire Island hot spots, there are two chowder joints: Nicky's Clam Bar, which is directly across from the dock and better known to ferry-riders, and the Chowder Bar, which stands at the entrance to a parking lot down the street. The interiors are nearly identical: Each has a wooden bar with comfortable stools and small tables against the wall. But the Chowder Bar lacks the convenient takeout window that makes Nicky's so travel-friendly. A trip to Fire Island feels like a real schlep without a cup of chowder for the ride.
For me, the ritual was born at Nicky's. On my first trip, I arrived in Bay Shore at the stage of a heinous hangover when you need to eat something salty, heavy, and, well, a little gross. Something that, in this condition, your stomach tells you not to ingest. If you can do it, you're cured. Familiar as it is, New England clam chowder is a little strange. Clams 'n' cream? Really, if you didn't know, you'd never know. I brought my cup to the top of the ferry, where I sat outside, even though it was drizzling. The sea breeze and the chowder together made for a miraculous recovery. The soup was thick and oddly, but deliciously, nutmeg-intensive. I stepped off that boat a new woman.
I recently made my annual visit to Fire Island, devoting extra time for a chowder taste-test. On the way there, I stopped at Nicky's to sample the Manhattan chowder (tomato-based, traditionally heavy on the dried thyme) and the seafood bisque, which is actually their most popular creation. It's identical to the chowder but with the addition of crab and lobster meat. For the first time, I sat inside at the bar, where a friendly waitress brought the soups (and, as a chaser, a huge plate of fresh, whole, perfectly fried clams, the best thing I ate all weekend). The bisque was tasty, but I detected flour both in flavor and consistency. To top it off, the trademark nutmeg overpowered the clams by a long shot.
On the way back, I visited the Chowder Bar, whose motto is "Once You've Nibbled, We'll Have You Hooked!" and sat, again, at the bar. I tried the Manhattan again, only to confirm its inferiority. Bay Shore is a lot closer to Manhattan than New England, but nonetheless, the creamy version is king here. So I also tried the seafood bisque, which was smoother than Nicky's, with an almost gelatinous consistency, like soup thickened with cornstarch at Chinese restaurants. The taste was brinier, truer to the sea, and I was somewhat surprised that I preferred it to Nicky's. Overall, though, I was saddened that the various chowders fell short of my memories. As a final test, I ordered a cup of the straightforward New England clam chowder, but, feeling self-conscious about my exorbitant chowder consumption, I got it to go.
In the fresh air of the parking lot, I insatiably devoured the contents of the Styrofoam coffee cup, full as I was. It was perfectly clammy, with big soft chunks of potato and decomposing celery. This was bliss, perfection. The question I don't want answered is whether it could have tasted the same inside, without the damp, salty breeze and foghorns in the distanceor did I imagine those?