Cliff's cedar-shingled dive is something of a North Fork, Long Island, landmark known for its shell steaks, which are marinated and broiled to a degree of black char that lies beyond the redemptive power of any Instagram filter. I had eaten two bowls of Cliff's transcendent, Manhattan-style clam chowder—as in red with tomatoes, not cloudy with cream—the stuff that's long been denigrated by New Englanders as worked-up vegetable soup from the borough that bears its name. Cliff's version has been served in round, heavy bowls on plates lined with doilies practically forever, and I needed to know more about this paradox of mediocre-looking excellence: The broth was clam bouillon gray, practically overcast with ground bivalves, the opposite end of the Manhattan chowder spectrum from sauce red; its celery and onion were less sliced and diced and more hacked apart, like by one of those high-powered infomercial choppers gone haywire. Yet it tasted the way Manhattan clam chowder should taste, broadly sweet with glutamate-rich clams, as if its constituent parts had been on a slow simmer together forever until they reached a soupy alchemy. The only problem was no one wanted to tell me how that alchemy worked.