Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Chowderfest!


When the organizers of Chowderfest in Troy decided to hold the event in mid-October, I'm guessing part of the idea was that these cups of chowder would serve as a way to warm the attendees standing outside in the crisp fall air. Instead, here we were with yet another day with temperatures around the 70 degree mark.  I'm pretty sure no one's complaining about that, and it sure made for a nice day to wait in long lines in Riverfront Park.

This was my first Chowderfest, and it really was something to see how many people came out for this event--I saw figures estimating attendance at 20,000.  For those who haven't attended (you might be in the minority now), several area restaurants--this year 17--set up tents and cooked their own special version(s) of chowder for the event.  Four ounce cups chowder could be purchased with tickets (one ticket per cup of chowder), which were bought for $1 each prior to heading to the tents.

While it's a pretty fun concept--shown by both the crowd and the fact that this is the seventh year of the event--I also noticed some problems with the execution of Chowderfest that made attending it fairly frustrating.  Below I'll lay out some of those issues, and recap a handful of the chowders I tried this year.

Too Many People, Not Enough Chowder: I arrived at Chowderfest at noon, two hours after the vendors started scooping chowder, and found that a number of the tents were already shut down, all out of chowder.

It's not like I went hungry or had my tickets go to waste, as there were still around 10 of the 17 restaurants left serving chowder at 12:30, but this kind of poor planning does take away from the fun of the experience for attendees.  Chowderfest was scheduled to run until 3; it's not like these places were running out of chowder at 2 p.m., which would have been more understandable.

Where Are We and Where Are We Going?: It's not so much that lines were long--that's understandable with such a large turnout.  It's that the end of one line was typically indistinguishable from the end of another line due to the way the vendors were arranged.  Also, from the middle of that swarm of people, it was impossible to see which tent was which in many cases.

Lots of these tents had signage only near ground level; with a crowd like this, where you're looking over the heads of so many others, there need to be signs up at the top of the tents.  Not many restaurants got this right, and I don't understand why the organizers of the event ignored such a common sense aspect (particularly in the seventh edition of this event!).

When Can I Get This Soup Again?: Some of the chowders served at the event were, from my own tasting and the reports I heard from others, pretty darn good.  You might think, then, that these four ounce cups would only serve as a tease, one that would get customers to come into the restaurants in the coming weeks so they could taste more of this delicious chowder.

The problem?  In almost all cases, it seems, the restaurants serving chowder weren't then going to put this chowder on the menu at their restaurant, even temporarily (the only one I heard about offering the chowder at the restaurant was the Albany Pump Station, whose chowder I wasn't even able to try).  Just another bizarre little business decision in an area filled with restaurants that seem to often operate in curious ways.

I'm Done with Chowder and I'd Like a Drink--Why Is It So Hard to Get One?: After sampling my six cups of chowder, I was interested in quenching my thirst--both from the chowder and the heat--with a nice beer.  But I didn't end up getting one.  Why?  First, at Chowderfest itself, it seemed like a real process: there appeared to be a long line in which you could buy $4 drink tickets, which only then led you to another line to get the drinks.  It wasn't any easier if you wanted a non-alcoholic drink, like water.

And let's face it: By 1 p.m., I'd had enough of standing in long lines.  So we exited Riverfront Park and headed into Troy to get a drink.  Unfortunately, the only place we found open at the time was Bootleggers, which was, understandably, mobbed.  Finnbar's is apparently closed now on Sundays, and The Confectionery also now doesn't open until 4 p.m. on Sundays.  I guess I can't argue if the reason is that business is historically bad on Sundays at these places, but even so, it would have been a great idea to open early on the afternoon of Chowderfest and advertise that, luring people in for a drink or lunch.

I only mention these issues because I think this is a potentially great event--unique, fun, and a good bit of advertising both for the city of Troy and the restaurants participating in Chowderfest.  I'm not sure, though, that I would bother to return next year if it's run the same way as it was this year.

Without further ado, here are my thoughts on the six chowders I did sample this year:

Illium Cafe: Seafood Chowder


I'll admit, we were a little disappointed to find Illium had already run out of their Apple & Pork Belly Chowder, but this seafood chowder didn't disappoint.  Some servings included rather large pieces of lobster, which was a huge bonus, and the broth was full of flavor.  Despite some potatoes that seemed a bit undercooked, this earned the top spot on K's ballot, third place on mine.

Brown's Brewing Co.: Coconut, Miso, White Yam and Turban Squash with American Wheat


The description alone was intriguing with this one, and somehow, despite all these details, they didn't include that there were some dried pork cheek crumbles also added to this chowder!  The bacon-like addition added some good flavor to this chowder that seemed sort of unbalanced.  I didn't really detect the beer, and the texture was thin despite the coconut.  It also seemed a little overly sweet.  A good idea, but not one of my top three.

Finnbar's Pub: Seafood Chowder


I like Finnbar's.  Their pub is quite nice inside, they've got a good beer list, and the pub grub there has been above average, in my experience, and some of it has an authentic Irish twist.  Unfortunately, here at Chowderfest, we got the last of their chowder--those parts spooned from the bottom of the pot, so most of the shrimp and whitefish had already been scooped up.  The flavor of the broth, however, was quite good.

Carmen's Cafe: Cuban Clam Chowder


What makes a clam chowder Cuban?  Beats me.  There was no description on the ballot, though I remember a mention of chorizo at the tent.  Nothing really stood out to me about this chowder, either.  It featured some chicken and the broth was quite thin.  The chorizo was only slightly noticeable.

Mio Vino Wine Bar and Bistro: Crab Chowder with Adirondack Cheddar and Sam Adams Lager


I'm always down for some cheddar beer soup, so I was pretty excited for this one.  The balance was a little off on this one, though.  The cheese was overly prominent (I never thought I'd be complaining about too much cheese!) in my opinion--too strong and rich--while K found the beer taste to be kind of strong.  It was also pretty thin, not something I'd expect from this kind of soup, and the crab was sort of lost in the shuffle.

Mallozzi Family: Autumn Pear Chowder


I was interested in this one from the start and used my last ticket of the day on it.  Strangely, at 1 p.m., with many tents already closed, most of the remaining lines were really long, but I pretty much walked right up to the Mallozzi tent and got the autumn pear chowder immediately.  I was a little skeptical of how the pear would be incorporated here, but it worked beautifully.  That flavor paired really nicely with the maple syrup that was added for sweetness; overall this was easily the most well-balanced chowder I tasted, a particularly successful non-traditional take on chowder.

As it turns out, I was in agreement with Chowderfest's judges, who gave the Autumn Pear Chowder first place overall.  Good call!

9 comments:

  1. I had similar complaints with Troy's Food Truck Festival this spring. Food running out early, indistinguishable (and SLOW) lines, hard-to-find menus. I think the Riverfront Park space has a lot to do with it. When you glom a whole bunch of tents (or trucks) together, it's going to be chaos. Saratoga's Chowderfest is much more navigable because you actually go into the restaurants themselves.

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    1. Good point about the space. It is so nice down there on the river, but I think you're right that it can only comfortably accommodate a certain number of people, and that number was well exceeded for Chowderfest.

      I'll have to try Saratoga's Chowderfest one day; I remember hearing about it, and it does sound like a pretty interesting setup.

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    2. I definitely recommend Saratoga Chowderfest. It's in the middle of winter (last year was FREEZING) but it's in the heart of downtown, so you can go inside the restaurants and shops and warm up as needed. I think I spent more time at the Saratoga Olive Oil Company than all the chowder restaurants combined :)

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  2. Thanks for the write up. For me, the last few Troy "foodie" events are falling into my Yogi Berra category . . . "Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded."

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  3. You didn't miss anything with Illium's pork belly chowder. It was inedible. And I'm a "if you don't have something nice to say, don't say anything at all" person to the bone. So for me to publicly decry something as awful, well, it had to be bad.

    Both of Brown's offerings were great. The best for me was Sweet Sue's smoked seafood chowder, followed by the Pump Station's chowder with andoiulle, then probably The Ruck's Southwest chowder.

    You assessment of the event is spot on. Great post!

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    1. Thanks, Deanna! And you're totally right about Brown's other chowder, the whiskey porter one. I only had a spoonful or two, but I liked that enough to put it down for 2nd place on my ballot.

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  4. From what I understand, the restaurants are told by the organizers to bring 30 gallons of chowder. Now, some have been traditionally popular, and you can also guess when a soup will run out fast (Um, pork belly, hello.). But if I was told by the organizer to bring 30 gallons, then that's what I'll bring. Would there be a benefit to the restaurants to bring more if they thought they would run out - I'm not sure - Do they take in extra profit, or does the money go to charity? What if they make more, but then it rains and the event is poorly attended? What if I know I run out early every year, make more, and then can serve more people - will this piss off the organizers or the other restaurants who have business drawn away from them? In any case, it is easiest just to do the minimum required. If they organizers really want to organize it better, then they might wise up and say "this group of restaurants bring this much, and this group bring this much...", but that requires more organization. If they're already bringing in 20,000 people, what is their motivation to take that extra step? I agree with you that it sucks that people run out of chowder before the event is half over, but I'm just playing devil's advocate. I do agree that something needs to be done to organize the lines better, and your point about signage is just common sense!

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    1. I think you're pretty much spot-on that this isn't the restaurants' issue so much as it is the organizers'. I'd be curious to know if this year's spike in attendance was actually less surprising than it seemed; they must have an idea of that, based on the number of tickets sold, and I wonder if that could have been predicted to some extent based on a rise in attendance in previous years.

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