Despite its French-Canadian origins, poutine feels like a distinctly American dish. A plate of deep fried potatoes covered with cheese curds and gravy makes for an item that has gained nationwide acceptance as an over-the-top comfort food. Nowadays, eateries of all calibers are eager to feature it on their menus. Diners, pizzerias, pubs and even fine-dining restaurants are offering their own unique version of this gluttonous feast, and diners are ordering it in droves.
For some reason, many restaurant owners like to serve poutine in gargantuan portions. It’s likely for shock factor, as apparently a reasonably-sized portion isn’t enough of an attack on the arteries. I first tried poutine earlier this year during a trip to Canada. There was five of us in total, so we ordered two “grand poutines”, not knowing that each one yielded enough to feed a basketball team. Lesson learned.
Although Poutine, which, by the way, is a Quebecois slang term for “mess”, has become a relatively common item, public opinion varies considerably. I tried multiple versions of this dish, more than enough to devise an opinion. So, is poutine too over-the-top for its own good?
Poutine is an undeniably simple dish. Oftentimes, French fries, brown gravy and cheese curds are the only components. Therefore, ensuring the quality of each component is essential. Gravy, often beef gravy, is the chief flavor provider, and restaurants who are serious about their poutine make it in house. The rich, savory flavor of the gravy compliments the mild earthiness of the fries, making for a different kind meat and potatoes experience. Also, hand-cut fries are always a benefit.
The heady richness and saltiness of the gravy masks the flavor of the cheese curds, which tend to have a mild sharpness that can’t quite stand up to the meat juice that they’re enrobed in. Perhaps combining the curds with a sharper cheese would improve the balance. Some higher-end restaurants have begun adding fresh herbs to the poutine; this is a welcome addition, as herbs such as rosemary, parsley and tarragon add a bit of complexity to what is a relatively one-note dish. 7.5/10
Texture is the reason why some individuals avoid poutine like the plague. In the end, poutine is essentially a pile of soggy French fries. However, I must say that the sogginess didn’t bother me nearly as much as I thought it may. Despite being drenched in a hot liquid, the fries hold their shape quite well, and they really absorb the flavor of the gravy when submerged. However, I still prefer crispy fries that can be eaten manually to wet fried that must be forked. After all, the main appeal of French fries is the crispness.
After eating various variations, I have concluded that there are two layers to every poutine, I’ll refer to these as “inner” and “outer”.
The inner layer consists of the fries that are absolutely soaked in gravy. They’ve lost all semblance of crispiness, but they have the most meaty flavor, and the cheese is somewhat melty. The outer layer consists of the fries at the top of the pile that are only partially covered in gravy. These fries still have crunch, but the cheese remains completely un-melted and often only lukewarm. While the contrast is nice, neither layer accomplishes everything.
Finally, one note on cheese curds: they’re great, of course. I love their toothsome and oddly “squeaky” texture, but they are a bizarre choice for poutine. The large chunks seldom melt completely, especially in the aforementioned “outer” layer. Thoroughly melty cheese would amp up the poutine experience so much, yet it is typically absent. 6/10
The fact that the local town diner as well as high-end luxury restaurants can get away with serving poutine is an ode to its versatility. Sure, you can go the traditional route, but potential for creativity abounds.
Almost any protein, cheese or vegetable can be added onto poutine. At Chez Vachon in Manchester, NH, diners have twenty poutine add-on options including mushrooms, tomatoes, peppers, broccoli, bacon, Italian sausage, steak, hot dog and the list goes on. They also offer a breakfast version with home fries, gravy, curds and two eggs (runny yolks, please!).
Higher-end establishments may use demi-glace instead of gravy. Duck confit, fresh herbs, kimchi (Korean fermented cabbage, A.K.A, the essence of life) and pork belly are additional elements I’ve seen on menus. I tried one version that was made with demi-glace, truffle oil, parmesan, curds and fresh rosemary. It was obnoxiously rich, but it mostly worked.
As to be expected, vegetarian and vegan versions of poutine are hard to come by due to the carnivorous nature of the gravy. It can be made vegetarian by using a vegetable stock-based gravy, but this is a rare find in restaurants. Vegan poutine is a total loss. Vegan cheese just does not work in this context, but recipes can be found online. Still, poutine can be altered in so many ways, and the result will almost always be delicious. 8.5/10
The one fancy version that I tried, which featured demi-glace, truffle oil, parmesan and rosemary, had a nice balance of flavors. The truffle oil was completely unnecessary, but at least it was applied in moderation. Also, the whole package was placed in a cast iron skillet and baked, allowing for the flavors to meld together and for the cheese curds to actually melt nicely. Let’s please do that more often.
I also enjoyed the other, more traditional versions. However, the cheese curds were lukewarm, or even somewhat cold in some instances. The gravy also lost it’s warmth after a short time, thus diminishing the enjoyment factor. Despite this, poutine is something that I will come back to when I have no interest in preserving my health. 7.5/10
Total Score: 29.5/40
Chez Vachon in Manchester and New England’s Tap House in Hooksett are two solid choices for poutine in the granite state.
All Images by Nicholas VonSchantz-Ricci
Originally published in unconventionaleatsnh.com