When one speaks of the cuisine of Quebec, it’s impossible to ignore the simple yet much loved dish “Poutine”. Essentially chips, cheese and gravy – something which is also popular in places like Scotland – it may seem hard to understand without experiencing it for yourself just what makes this stomach pleaser such an anticipated attraction of the region. But I’m going to do my best.
First and foremost, it’s the cheese itself that is different from the versions found elsewhere in the world – usually grated mozzarella or cheddar cheese. In Quebec, they only use cheese curds, which in itself doesn’t sound that appetising – more like off milk than a delicious treat – but when you realise that the curds are essentially bits of what eventually become Buffalo Mozzarella in Italian cuisine, you can start to get the picture. When done right, squeaky, creamy and flavourful, the cheese literally melts in the gravy in front of your eyes as you move it from plate to mouth. It’s the ingredient that makes Poutine, Poutine.
But, much in the same way that a burger can be much more than a patty and sauce in a bun, the locals claim the best Poutine is found when a restaurant gets creative with the recipe. The “gourmet” Poutine if you will. So, for the traveller to the region, what’s the best Poutine to enjoy? While in Quebec City and Montreal last month, I went to four recommended Poutine hotspots to find the answer.
Montréal Pool Room
1217 Boulevard Saint-Laurent, Montréal, QC H2X 2S6, Canada
I started my culinary exploration at one of Montreal’s staple “Greasy Spoons”, famed for serving steamed hot dogs and classic Poutine cheaply, efficiently and deliciously. There couldn’t have been a better place to start my journey as the Poutine at Pool Room is the classic original.
A mouthwatering gravy, perfect chips and cheese curds that melt just that little bit before they hit your lips. Add a bit of vinegar and/or salt at the table to spice things up – and some optional extras are available too – but served in a Styrofoam takeaway bowl and expected to be shared between friends (though suitable for a lone diner, too), you immediately see what all the fuss is about.
It’s a hearty dish that hits the spot for lunch, dinner or as a 3am alternative to the kebab. And it just so happens that the Pool Room, located near the heart of the city’s festival area (in the former red light district), is available for any of the above. It’s open nightly until 4am.
Poutine La Banquise
994 Rue Rachel Est, Montréal, QC H2J 2J3, Canada
La Banquise is easily the most recommended Poutine eatery in Montreal, offering dozens of variations of the dish in two sizes: regular (CAD$9 average) and large (CAD$14 average). Sharing between friends, the large is perfect, but for the solo consumer, you don’t need a bite more than the regular. A big eater myself, I struggled to finish the plate as it was.
Though chips and the cheese curds were the constant through the menu, the gravy and the additional items varied throughout. In some varietals the gravy with replaced by a pepper sauce, found as part of the “Extraordinaries” selection, which was raved about by many. Indeed, in speaking to the locals it became clear that the standard, pool room style of Poutine was overdone and dusted for them. They wanted the creative, they wanted the gourmet. And fair enough, but for the unfamiliar, is it really that much better?
Well, as a meal, definitely. By adding on piles of meat, vegetables or whatever you end up choosing, that you may otherwise associate with Nachos – it turns the dish into something more substantial. I had the “La Elvis” as my selection, covering the chips, gravy and curd in beef, mushrooms and green peppers. My fellow Poutine explorer went for the pepper sauce alternative, with smoked meat and sour cream its key additions. Both were unique, delicious recipes.
Those looking for Poutine as a side rather than a main can also grab a burger with a side of poutine, something that many around us were doing. And like the poutine itself, there were plenty of burger options for the creative customer too. Open 24 hours, La Banquise is a must eat restaurant in Montreal.
Le Chic Shack
15 Rue du Fort, Québec, QC G1R 3Z8, Canada
I kept with the more creative side of the cuisine in my first stop in Quebec City at Le Chic Shack to try their much talked about “Poutine 2.0” varieties. Even in the name they make it clear they’re trying to do something unique with their poutine concoctions. This starts with the chips themselves, served here as wedges. The curds were larger than at my previous stops, and somehow not as inviting. Maybe it was the type of dish I chose.
Served in a massive bowl, I went for the “La Forestiere”, about as far from the classic dish as you can get. The wedges sat in a mushroom broth, which were then covered in the curds, mushrooms, onions and shaved Parmesan. Very tasty, and incredibly gluttonous with the bigger sized chips. But it’s almost incomparable to the other selections on this list – it’s just that different.
At $12, it’s also on the more expensive side of the cuisine, and so though a tasty alternative, the “Poutine 2.0” seems definitely suited towards the locals, rather than the traveller. The venue, as you can probably guess by the name, also serves burgers and milkshakes that are raved about.
Chain throughout Quebec, Canada.
I finished my week in Quebec by going back to the basics, trying out the classic dish at a fast food staple of the region: Chez Ashton. With sizes starting from the baby to the large, and affordable all the way through, this is fast food in all its glory. Smoked meat is an optional addition, alongside a few other variations – though I kept things at their most basic here. And though it wasn’t quite as good as the Pool Room original, it is clearly a safe bet for a poutine treat, served comfortably in a foil bowl.
Though I’d experienced Poutine in other Canadian regions in the past, alongside some failed attempts at the dish in other countries, one might say that “nothing beats your first real taste” – and in that respect, Pool Room for me was unbeatable.
Though it’s a must to give a more expensive gourmet options a try while you’re there, if you can only have one Poutine, keep it simple. Places like Pool Room and Chez Ashton no doubt litter Quebec, serving the dish in a takeaway bowl with a couple of options like smoked meat being added to the concoction, but focusing on getting the classic dish just right.
The way the cheese melted, the taste and everything that there is to love about the dish is all there within the simple, classic version. And though the locals may be searching for the more creative, bored of what they have eaten their whole lives, for the unacquainted, it doesn’t get much better than that….
This article was written with sincere apologies to my waistline.
Larry travelled to Quebec courtesy of Quebec Tourism.