Southerners who love bivalves can be deeply particular about the provenance of their oysters. But clams? Not so much.
At Watchman’s Seafood and Spirits, a cheery Southern sustainable-seafood restaurant in Atlanta from the team behind Kimball House, chef Daniel Chance is hoping to change that. All of the fish he cooks there has a story. The kitchen can trace the snapper to the fishing boat that pulled it from the Gulf of Mexico and knows the day-to-day state of the stone crab fishery off the coast of Florida. “We want to save some for the next guy,” Chance says.
As a way to give Southern clams their due, Chance created a dish that has become a breakout star on the menu. He starts with clams farmed on the shores of South Carolina and steams them in sweet vermouth and sofrito, then ladles it all over a thick slice of grilled sourdough and showers the bowl with fresh herbs.
The clams come from Dave Belanger, a Charleston fish purveyor nicknamed Clammer Dave. He’s one of a handful of clammers who raise a type of indigenous hard-shell clam found all along the Eastern Seaboard—the Mercenaria mercenaria. Once Belanger digs them from the pluff mud, he sets them in baskets and floats them in the ocean so they can purge themselves of any grit. He delivers them so tightly packed in mesh that each bag feels like a rock. The tighter the clams are packed, Belanger says, the less likely they are to leak the precious fluid that keeps them alive—a tip home cooks can use when buying clams at the store.
Chance got his first taste of seafood during vacations with his dad on St. Simons Island, Georgia. “I grew up with him feeding me clams and oysters,” he says. He toggled between Colorado and Georgia as a kid, and took his first cooking job when he was in high school in Atlanta. But it wasn’t until he started cooking at Bacchanalia that he really developed a way with seafood. The owner, chef Anne Quatrano, thought he was so good with fish that in 2015 she tapped him to open W.H. Stiles Fish Camp, her restaurant in Ponce City Market. Three years later, he had the opportunity to launch Watchman’s.
His clam dish is a breeze to make. Preparing the sofrito, a ground mixture of garlic, red bell pepper, onion, and tomato scented with cumin, is easy with a food processor, though cooks who want even less work can buy jarred instead. And since the recipe produces a generous amount of buttery sauce , you’ll want to have extra bread ready for dipping. “Trust me on this,” Chance says. “You will want to bathe in it.”