The New Clam Spaghetti


Growing up, one of my most nostalgic, comforting meals my mom made was nothing super fancy – just some canned clams cooked down in their own sauce with a lot of butter and garlic and tossed with fresh grated parmesan and a heaping pile of al dente linguini studded with a touch of red pepper flake.

I made this the other day as a way to use up the pantry before going out to shop again (an exercise in thriftiness). But then I also had some form of clams and pasta twice in the last month at two newish restaurants. A little stepping up a notch.

The first was at Coda di Volpe, Billy Lawless’ latest outpost in Southport Corridor where I live. Our reaction to the restaurant opening was a mixture of “thank god” and “finally.” A restaurant with some elegance and class that you could possibly take your kid too, but that you could go with your husband happily without the kids and feel like a grown up again. Order a stiff cocktail, have a well thought out, well made plate(s) of food and just enjoy the evening with some good service and no screaming families.

Coda’s (or should I say Chef/Partner Chris Thompson of the famed A16)’s Spaghetti alla Chitarra was a pretty bowl of delicate and al dente, handmade thin noodles lightly soaked in a brothy sauce with preserved lemon and ‘nduja – a soft and spicy pork sausage – and all topped with just-cooked manila clams, the kind that still taste meaty, tender and juicy like they were only recently alive.

The second was at Roister – the Alinea crew’s casual and more down-home answer for experimentally creative food. I remember eating Chef Andrew Brochu’s food at Kith & Kin, the little sleeper of a restaurant in an unfortunately cursed restaurant location on Webster in a quiet stretch of Lincoln Park with less foot traffic than, say, Clark Street. I remember eating the Alinea alum’s chicken liver mousse – one of the first iterations before it became an overly done trend citywide – and thinking this was one of the softest, creamiest, not overtly rich mousses I had ever had, like he took the freshest, and dare say it, fattiest chicken liver he could find but cut it by gently folding in just-whipped cream from some respectable dairy farm. It was divine, and I thought – yep, this guy is good.

Then, Kith & Kin closed – and he was gone. For a short time he popped up at Graham Elliot, but then I didn’t know what became of him until I saw his name pop up as the head chef for Achatz’s roister. I knew then I would have to try that.

So at this very overdue moment of trying roister I had medium expectations but of course those were quickly met and blown away. The open hearth fire gave a smokiness to the different menu items, from the juicy oysters on the half shell with a light and smoky, buttered breading to even the sunchokes that found their way into the crust of a fried chicken and dipping sauce for the sweet-glazed, crispy skinned breast.

But it was the buttered piped pasta and clams that blew my husband and I away (on my birthday, so thank you for that). it was a pasta I had never had before – without any real uniform shape, almost like a cross between an oversized spaetzle and larger orecchietti without the little indentation. Then the pasta was cooked perfectly al dente so it still had some bite and chew and that played off the slight chew of the clams that seem to have clearly been set over that hearth fire at some point for a touch of smokiness.

I’m a fan of acid and clearly so is Chef Brochu which is maybe one of the reasons I like his style. Strangely balancing the earthiness of the clams and pasta was this blend of two limes – kaffir and finger – for a sweeter tang that cut through the buttery broth at the bottom of the bowl. Chopped green chile relish and bright, fresh mint leaves – places oh so gently atop the mound of pasta – added a little texture and herbaceous touch as if you ate something really rich and then stuck your head in a garden bushel of mint and sniffed hard. It was a really unexpected combination of sour, sweet, salt and savory unlike I’ve had in a long time. needless to say we loved it. Definitely “clam spaghetti” redefined.