When Elin went to Montreal a couple years ago, she sent me an email with only a photograph attached, a picture with her mouth open, eyes closed, and a forkful of French fries covered in gravy. The subject of the email said simply, "Poutine," and I knew that one day we would travel to Montreal where I could try this dish myself and experience the delight that was apparent on her face.
As if frites dripping in gravy weren't enough, whoever invented Poutine--A Quebecoise dish-- had the good generosity to toss everything with pillowy, tender cheese curds as well, the raw material which is pressed into molds to make all sorts of cheeses; the counterpoint to whey. A popular snack in their own right throughout the area, curds are like a barely-set solid of milk, just faintly tangy from whatever vinegar or acidic ingredient was used to separate it from the whey; they also have a pleasant brininess to them. When fresh, curds taste young, soft, insubstantial. After a few minutes of cooling they tend to seize up and grow firmer, but when they come out nestled amongst the warm, crispy frites they are almost slippery. Unlike actual cheese, they don't become oily or oozy under heat; they simply go soft.
In many ways, Poutine is like a superior version of cheese fries -- rather than resorting to processed yellow cheese sauces, the American solution which probably contains very little actual cheese, the cheese is kept fresh, intact, pure. To solve the hankering for sauciness against crispy fries, they use poutine sauce.
Last weekend we travelled to Montreal and, among other culinary adventures, tried to find the best poutine. We visited a modest three places -- it was the most our arteries could handle -- and emerged with a definite winner. By the end, we vowed to wait at least an additional year before we tried it again.
Our first poutine stop was the place Cat had heard most recommended: La Banquise. Open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, they must fry literally tons of potatoes a month. Something like 25 variations on the traditional preparation tempted us -- additions from peperoni to peas to the highly tempting BOM: bacon, onions, and merguez sausage.
Ordering a traditional poutine without any additions as a control group was essential; the thought of spicy lamb merguez sausages was hard to resist. We ordered one of each in the regular size and were promptly shown this.
The poutine was ridiculously good. The frites were importantly well-crisped and brown. Their thickness was perfection: just enough potato to fry. Personally I prefer my frites darker than most, but these were exactly my preference. The cheese curds were tender and milky; the gravy was rich.
Our merguez poutine was also excellent, but not necessarily because of the merguez, which was fine but not remarkable and not half as spicy as merguez should be.
Au Pied de Cochon
Admittedly, Au Pied de Cochon -- perhaps Montreal's most famous restaurant -- is in an altogether different league than other casual poutine joints. It's sit-down and fancy and reviewed in newspapers. Yet the restaurant is also a relentlessly casual place, intent on informality, and their poutine is in the same price range as other spots. Since we were there already eating a meal -- which will merit an entire other blog post, to follow -- we got a plate of poutine to try.
Unfortunately for the integrity of this comparison -- though entirely fortunate in all other respects -- the restaurant accidentally sent us out the foie gras poutine instead of the regular poutine. Ah, the humanity! Not only does this poutine get crowned with a shimmering, fatty lobe of foie gras, but its gravy is also enhanced with foie gras essence. We dug in with abandon.
And were, of course, blown away. The frites, though less browned than at La Banquise, were suitably crispy. There weren't many of them, making the dish far more manageable to eat. The curds were a little larger--too large to fit in a bite with fries--and not quite as tender as at La Banquise. The gravy was spectacular, by far the best we'd eat all weekend.
And to top it all off, they didn't charge us for it -- not even for a regular poutine.
Driving around Montreal, you'll see Frite Alors! locations all over the city; it's a popular chain. The one above is at the Jean-Talon Market. The decor is bright yellow and red with characters from the beloved Belgian cartoon strip Tintin on the walls and tables. The menu, which includes hamburgers and other sandwiches, centers around Poutine and many variations thereof (for example, the sauce can be "Mexican" which we supposed was a kind of taco-i-fied sauce, or you can add in meats or vegetables like ground beef with green peppers).
We ordered the classic poutine, and just one: exhausted from our apparent immunity to indulgence, our lovely host Cat refused to eat any of the poutine.
It was good. It was good in the sense that a bowl of fries and cheese and gravy can't be bad. But it was the least remarkable of poutines we had. The gravy lacked a depth; the curd was a little tougher; the fries not as simultaneously crisp and comfortingly potatoey. The attention to detail is more difficult to cultivate in a chain, so this was somewhat expected. It was perhaps unfair to Frite Alors, though, that at this juncture, we had reached our veritable breaking point. We were full and feeling supremely caloric.
Yet our verdict was clear: La Banquise had the best poutine overall, though the gravy at Au Pied de Cochon was far and away superior.