By Jane and Michael stern
Originally Published 1997 Gourmet Magazine
Like pork barbecue and Creole gumbo, clam chowder is a charismatic dish that incites not just appetite, but loyalty: Devotees hold forth with near-religious zeal as to where the best is made and what, exactly, is the proper way to make it. The overriding clam chowder debate pits New England—style, an opaque clam and potato bisque thickened with milk or cream, against Manhattan-style, a tomato-based broth loaded with vegetables in addition to clams and potatoes. On the shoreline of southern New England, midway between Manhattan and Bean Town, there is yet a third significant version almost always overlooked in the familiar two-sided controversy: clear-broth clam chowder.
Made without cream or milk and with no vegetables other than potatoes and onions, clear-broth chowder is a potent elixir that radiates marine fragrance like a summer breeze across a white-sand beach. It is served by the cup to whet the appetite before a lobster feast or clambake; and a wide bowl of it with a stack of crackers on the side makes a warming winter meal. This unusual Yankee specialty is taken for granted by many happy eaters between New Haven Harbor and Block Island Sound, where it is as familiar as a bucket of steamers.
“It is the only chowder I knew growing up in Mystic,” says Flo Klewin, whose father supervised the family clambakes and whose mother ran the Pilot House restaurant in Stonington Village, on the shore. Flo is now the proprietor of Kitchen Little, a café between the highway and the harbor, just a few hundred yards north of the historic Seaport where tall ships are berthed. Clear-broth clam chowder is always on her menu, sold by the bowl or in a crockery coffee mug. It is some of the best you’ll taste anywhere: Crowded with large pieces of tender pink clams as well as soft hunks of red-skinned potato and dotted with fresh basil, Kitchen Little chowder is an exhilarating soup with uncomplicated oceanside character.
But here we need to pause a moment. If you happen to be a roadside food connoisseur already familiar with Kitchen Little, you are probably scratching your head and wondering why we are rattling on about clam chowder. You ask: What about breakfast??
It’s true, Kitchen Little emphatically is a breakfast place. Its motto: A.M. EGGSTASY! And we shall tuck into breakfast forthwith. But the goodness of this unique shoreline clam chowder must not be ignored. Nor is chowder the only delicious thing to eat for lunch at Kitchen Little, which closes at 2 P.M. except on summer weekends, when supper is served. Although regular café sandwiches occupy much of the midday menu, there is also a short roster of good, sleeves-up seafood. Kitchen Little is a fine place to get a fried clam roll or a fish and chips platter; and the lobster roll, either hot or cold, is exemplary. A cold roll is the customary Down East preparation, for which the claw, tail, and knuckle meat are bound in mayonnaise and stuffed into a split, toasted hotdog bun. A hot lobster roll is another little appreciated specialty of the southern New England shore: nothing but large chunks of warmed meat bathed in butter and put into the bun.
Other than chowder, though, the one essential seafood to eat is scallops, listed on the menu as “Stonington scallops.” Savvy local mollusk fanciers will correctly surmise that “Stonington” refers to the home berth of the scalloper Patty Jo, which Bill Bomster and his crew use to harvest sea scallops south of Georges Bank off the coast of Cape Cod. Bornster family scallops are a local legend—prized by a handful of top-flight seafood restaurants and fishmongers because they are shucked and fresh-frozen within two hours of coming onto the boat. “Fresh scallops,” on the other hand, can be up to ten days old by the time they are brought to shore by most commercial boats, at which point they have already been bleached and “freshened” with chemicals. The difference is remarkable. At Kitchen Little, Bomster scallops are lightly battered and quickly fried, resulting in frail-crusted, pillowy nuggets that are dense, sweet, and pure.
Another good reason to come to Kitchen Little for lunch, instead of breakfast, is that you stand a better chance of getting in promptly. On almost any morning, but especially on weekends, you must expect to wait outside for quite some time for one of the precious twenty-three seats in this minuscule eating hut. If it’s a nice day, the delay can be pleasant. There are a couple of wood slat benches out front under a tall pole topped with an American flag, and the steel-blue water lapping up against the grassy shore just beyond the café is hypnotic. Recently we watched one woman, who arrived with two Chesapeake Bay retrievers, spend the waiting time exploring the shallows with her four-legged companions, then slogging back up the grass to announce, “The dogs found mussels…but they didn’t know what to do with them!”
Kitchen Little’s front door is flanked by two chalkboards, one listing the daily specials by letter—A, B, C—the other a sign-up sheet on which hopeful customers write their names and the number in their party. A happy camaraderie tends to develop among the persevering appetites of those who have all been drawn by the magic aura of this tiny roadside discovery; and we recently participated in a convivial ad hoc conference about breakfasts we have known and loved around the country, from corned beef hash at Al’s Breakfast in Minneapolis to huevos rancheros at Tecolote in Santa Fe. “I’m from Deep River,” one Connecticut lady tells us, “But it was my daughter, who lives in Jackson Hole, who told me I had to come to Kitchen Little for pancakes. And look!” she says, triumphantly pointing to the board where special “C” is listed as buttermilk pancakes with warm strawberry sauce.
Waiting is such a fundamental part of the Kitchen Little experience that one patron wrote a poem about it, now inscribed in calligraphic handwriting and posted in the tiny vestibule:
This place is small but it stands tall, stands out above the rest; With room for all, may have to wait, but the food is the very best. The smiles you see, maybe people you meet, will make it worth your time; Sometimes to reach the best places in life, we have to stand in line.
If you are a party of two and your name comes up, a waitress will escort you into the dining room and point you to the open deuce. For singles, there is a five-stool counter, or a sign advises, “Make a new friend by joining a table.” The place—a mere four hundred square feet including the kitchen—is absolutely packed, and the seats are so close together that at the counter and even at the eight small, glass-topped tables, you always run the risk of reaching down and picking up your neighbor’s coffee mug instead of your own.
A galley kitchen facing the counter provides the sounds of bacon being sizzled and eggs getting scrambled as an appropriate background beat for the gregarious chatter that fills the air. One summer morning we are mesmerized by a current-events colloquy carried on through the kitchen’s pass-through window between Elliot Coleman, one of the weekday cooks, and a couple of fishermen types perched on counter stools nursing coffee. The customers both agree that one of Connecticut’s senators “doesn’t have both oars in the water,” but, alas, the conversation drifts into Kennedy family gossip before we can discern who they are talking about. At a table next to ours, two women waiting for their breakfasts to arrive hold sections of the morning newspaper in front of their faces, commenting to each other on the advice of Dear Abby and the poor performance of the local high school sports teams.
“Meep-meep!” calls waitress Annie Vos in an attempt to pull the ladies’ attention from their paper. She has two plates piled with thick, sunny-yellow omelets: one filled with mushrooms, glistening green leaves of spinach, and cheese, the other with chunks of rugged Italian sausage. “I hate to interrupt you,” Annie says, “but you’d better get it while it’s hot.” Their table is so close to ours, it is tempting to steal a taste straight off their plates.
Once the omelets are set down, Annie spins to address us. Somehow the staff has perfected the technique of negotiating the interstices between tables. The waitresses seem to be everywhere, all the time. “Ready to order?” she asks.
“We need a minute,” we reply.
“You got a minute!” As the clock ticks, Annie twirls to face another table and fields a query about the beautiful flower beds she’s planted that ring the little restaurant.
Our sixty seconds up, Annie turns to us. “We’ll have pancakes,” we say. “You want the pancakes, or you want the C?” Annie inquires, referring to the third daily special listed on the chalkboard after (A) the fresh asparagus, carrots, and Swiss cheese omelet, and (B) grilled hot sausage, home fries, and jalapeno peppers topped with scrambled eggs and jack cheese. “You order pancakes, that’s all you get. You want warm strawberry sauce, you better say C.”
C it is.
The pancakes are big and tender with a buttermilk tang, and the sauce is tart, but it’s the egg dishes most people come for. Last year, Flo Klewin reports, she went through ten-thousand dozen eggs. In particular we recommend the S’medley, a contraction of “Sue’s Medley,” to honor Susan Davis, the woman who originally transformed the little building that had once been a private home, then a rug shop, then a greasy spoon, into Kitchen Little back in the late 1970s. (Flo started as a waitress and took over when Sue left in the mid-1980s.) The S’medley is a hot heap of fluffy scrambled eggs with cheese melting on top that blankets crunchy home-fried potatoes, sausage, mushrooms, and onions. Another of Kitchen Little’s scrambled-egg medleys is “The Portuguese Fisherman,” made with linguica and chorizo sausage, both of which Flo gets from a butcher in Fall River, Massachusetts—also the source of the Portuguese sweet bread that is made into a frequent weekend special of sweet-bread French toast.
Waitresses patrol the tiny dining room with a pot of coffee in each hand—regular and decaf—topping off your cup nearly every time you take a sip. For most of us, the coffee is served in Kitchen Little souvenir mugs with the inscription, “Is There Life Before Coffee?” Frequent patrons, on the other hand, keep their own cups hanging on hooks just above the counter—about sixty of them altogether comprising a miscellaneous collection of silly cartoons, fine-art reproductions, souvenirs, and earthenware. When a member of the kitchen staff catches us admiring this homey touch, she bemoans the display. “When you come to work here, the biggest challenge is learning which mug is whose. Then you’ve got to memorize exactly where it’s hanging so you can grab it, fill it, and have it on the table before its owner hits the seat.”