Prowling for Poutine

With winter comes the want of comforts. Comforting blankets, comforting sweaters, and, of course, comforting foods. In seeking guidance on how best to sate one’s hunger in winter’s deep recesses, we turned to our friendly hockey-loving neighbors to the north who have come up with a particularly soothing tonic for the season—poutine.

At this point, poutine has worked its way out of truck stops and greasy spoons deep in Quebec’s hinterlands and onto menus throughout the United States. For the uninitiated, poutine has three components—french fries, cheese curds, and brown gravy. Additions happen, and can even be embraced, but the holy trinity must remain present. Absent one of the three, you may have something tasty, it’s just not poutine.

I’ve spent time in Quebec—most of it eating poutine. On occasion, sure, that poutine had a lobe of foie gras on it, but for the most part my sampling of the regional delicacy was done in places that were not exactly first-date friendly. And even in those higher-end places, it’s still their dish. They grew up with it—it’s in their DNA. Poutine is not a protected term like Champagne or Pizza Napoletana, but being so distinctively from one place, it carries with it all the trappings of a terroir.

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Lately, as an offering in modern gastropubs, poutine has transcended its humble roots. Think, lobster mac n’ cheese, or chicken and waffles. Its elevated form, which gained footing in trend-setting spots in Montreal, is now working its way south, populating cloth napkins and heavy silverware restaurants. With poutine’s rise in popularity, we figured it was time to take a field trip to attempt to determine if poutine could successfully be taken from its home and enjoyed here, in our home. A nobler task I could hardly imagine.

When assembling our crew, we knew that we’d be treading into the murky waters of evaluating authenticity, which is itself an elusive concept. To best do that, we included a pair of folks with Canadian lineage. One even has a dad named Gascon—obviously he would be our expert. So off we set, a motley group consisting of said son-of-Gascon Eric Plante, Edible Cleveland editor Jon Benedict, Adam Lambert of Newfoundland stock and consultant to the poutine-centric Detroit-Shoreway restaurant Banter, Adam’s wife taking photos, my wife, and me—a poutine enthusiast and general skeptic of culinary appropriation. Our task was simple. Eat poutine in Cleveland until we were full, eat more poutine, then head to the not-yet-open Banter, to taste something of preview. It was a poutine crawl.

We started off downtown, with a version of gravy fries not explicitly listed on the menu as poutine, but for sure, referencing the dish. The concoction included grainy mustard for acid, bacon, and sunny-side-up eggs, along with the requisite curds and gravy. Along with a round of beers, the night was off to a solid start. This was the first stop, and it was strong. The gauntlet had been thrown. Not a classic poutine by any stretch, nor marketed as such, this iteration had me questioning whether cloth napkins with one’s poutine-esque snack was indeed blasphemous. Maybe going up-market with the dish isn’t such a bad thing.

We headed across the river to the near west side, where the accompanying drinks were as good as they were downtown, but the same cannot be said of the poutine. Our second stop brought us quality fries and top-notch curds, but those two elements could not save a bland and thin gravy. Fortunately we had Eric, whose international experience and genetic predisposition attuned him to the dark alchemy of improving subpar poutine tableside. For Eric the solution was simple—he doused the underwhelming dish with vinegar and salt. It helped.

Where the gravy came up short on our second stop, the curds were the Achilles heel the next two. Rather than the squeaky, almost melted rubber-like texture found in fresh, proper curds that have been softened between hot fries and warm gravy, our third sampling of the dish employed a dairy stand-in more akin to ricotta, and the other blanketed the fries with what appeared to be melted mozzarella. Enjoyable, no doubt, and devoured by the group, but poutine this was not.

As is said about pizza and a variety of other things, poutine, even when it’s bad, is good, but, to paraphrase Obi-Wan, these are not the poutines you’re looking for. For that, Adam promised to round out the evening with a demonstration. By then we’d sampled four poutines with a variety of add-ins and riffs on the original. Our palates were tired, and our bellies full. Could it be that one must cross the border for a solid poutine?

What we wanted, and what Adam offered, was a study on the genre. There were the fries, made from Russet potatoes, cut fat and short and fried twice. And of course brown gravy, made from a roux-thickened chicken stock that had been enriched with beef bones and piqued with a hit of vinegar. Finally, the curds, made using Guernsey milk. That was it, and it was perfect.

Adam’s rendition used strong technique and quality ingredients. There was no garnish, no house-smoked this or barrel-aged that to rarify this dish. It didn’t need it. We had been drinking. It was cold outside, and we were protected from the elements. It was late and we were happy. In that moment, nothing could be better than a hot and soggy pile of gravy-soaked French fries hiding bite-sized morsels of melting cheese curds. With no plates or silverware around we ate the poutine with our fingers right off the cutting board. I’m still not sure what we used for napkins.

For sure, the majority of the poutines we tried had flaws, but had we had them on a snowy night at a roadside diner between Montreal and Quebec City would we have been as critical? There’s no substitute for enjoying a local specialty on its own turf, whether it’s a taco in a zocalo in Mexico, street-side pho in Vietnam, or a Polish Boy from Seti’s in the Dean’s Supply parking lot. The dish and the setting combine to form something greater than the sum of the individual parts. That said, I’ll never pass on a taco at La Plaza in Lakewood, or a bowl of pho at Superior Pho in Asiatown. And, with cautious optimism, I’ll be waiting to sample that poutine at Banter.