A few hours before the onset of what is supposed to be a "multi-day" and "life-threatening" blizzard, over one hundred Chicagoans gathered to sample Chicago's best seafood chowders at the Columbia Yacht Club's Chowdah Fest. The event was modeled on Boston's popular ChowderFest, which perhaps more fittingly takes place in July. The Columbia Yacht Club is located on the Sea Scouts Ship #5111, a vessel currently moored in glacial Monroe Harbor. Inside the Yacht Club on Monday evening, however, the scene was cozy, complete with burnished wooden staircases and trophy cases glistening with sailing prizes.
The event was in part a fundraiser for the Chicago area Sea Scouts, some of whom were present and in uniform. A co-ed organization for young people ages 14 to 21, the Sea Scouts are a branch of the Boy and Girl Scouts. Sailing out of three ports in the city, the Sea Scouts' sailboats range from 35 to 47 feet long. Sea Scouting dates back to the founding of the Scout Movement in Great Britain; even today they utilize a ranking system derived from the British Navy.
Nine Chicago restaurants and seafood purveyors were represented at Chowdah Fest, from Shaw's Crab House's classic-style chowder to private chef Julius Russell's spicy Chilean concoction. When not manning their own tables, many of the restaurateurs intermittently slipped away to sample the competition and chat with seafood and fine dining enthusiasts. Nana Organic attracted attention with its sizzling fried oyster display and distinctive fennel flavor. Nana uses cauliflower in addition the potato, an innovation that made their soup a front-runner in the popular vote at the end of the evening. Lagging early in the polling was Fox and Obel despite a solid and clam-heavy chowder. While their croutons could not compete with the satisfying crunch of Chef Julius', Fox and Obel held the distinction of being the only establishment offering biodegradable plastic ware.
On the upper deck, Benny's Chop House's creamy chowder was paired with a prosciutto-garnished cocktail made from a thyme-infused potato vodka and Irish Kelpie Seaweed Ale. Giuseppe Tentori, of BOKA and the upcoming GT Fish & Oyster, was similarly inspired, topping his chowder with a tangy dusting of prosciutto. Dirk's Fish and Gourmet offered a light oyster bisque with a generous amount of fresh oysters, the recipe for which they were notably giving away. Dirk's also offers cooking classes, as well as a full battery of seafood recipes online.
At the end of the evening, however, most of those aboard not wooed by Nana Organic's creativity voted for the Drake Hotel's timeless chowder, which is served out of the Cape Cod room and has been prepared by the same chef for over forty years. Nonna Santi's biscotti, in class anise and trendy sea salt variations, offered a sweet finish for all chowder enthusiasts. After nine bowls of chowder it was agreed that the walk back along Lake Michigan, despite the icy lake winds, would be considerably less frigid.