Andrew Snowdon

Archive for June, 2010|Monthly archive page

Poutine and Mirrors

In Uncategorized on Tuesday 29 June 2010 at 11:50

Everybody in Ottawa is talking about poutine this week.

The reason is simple: on Monday, Smoke’s Poutinerie opened its doors in the former location of End Hits on Dalhousie, just south of Rideau. Smoke’s, a Toronto-based chain, pledges to bring the authentic taste of Québec poutine to the rest of the world.

Hold on a second.

Google Maps (my Canadian geography is shot after having spent a decade in a call centre) tells me that, although Toronto is quite large, it is still farther away from Québec than Ottawa is. In fact, on a good day, this new Smoke’s location is practically walking distance from Québec. If there weren’t so many buildings and condos in the way, you could see the government buildings across the river. About half of the cars passing by have Québec license plates.

Due to this proximity to Québec, and its significant francophone population, Ottawa already has plenty of poutine. Besides many chip trucks, most local restaurants (even McDonald’s, or so I hear) offer poutine as an option on their menus. Some, like the Elgin Street Diner, are even noted for their poutine offerings. Even national chain fast-food restaurants in mall food courts serve poutine—it’s demanded by the population. All of the restaurants in the St. Laurent Shopping Centre share (or at least they used to) the St. Albert’s cheese curds that are an essential ingredient of poutine.

By stark contrast, poutine is virtually unheard of west of Ontario. I visited a restaurant in Winnipeg in 2005 that advertised “fries, gravy, and cheese curds” and it took me a couple of minutes to realize that they were selling poutine, but that the name was not widely known in the area. Most people outside of Canada have to check Wikipedia to find out what poutine even is.

I can only imagine the initial disgust of someone encountering a picture of poutine. It is the most visually unappealing, presentation-resistant food. It consists of great whitish-yellow globules coated with a glaze of tawny, flecked gravy, on a bed of French fries. It takes very little suggestion to turn someone off of it completely (I like to use the word “lipoblow” for this purpose, but the mere mention of anything remotely medical will resonate immediately). People used to the dish don’t seem to care what it looks like; taste and texture trump its bedpan looks.

Authentic poutine consists of French fries, cheese curds (the production of which is a cottage industry), and gravy (traditionally light chicken gravy). The heat of the fries and the gravy melts the curds slightly, so that the cheese is half-solid, half-stringy. Poutine is commonly seasoned with pepper, as there is usually enough salt in the gravy (and cheese curds) to kill satisfy the average human. Like everything else that is just fine the way it is, countless variations on the basic recipe exist; gravy substitutions are common (the Elgin Street Diner, for example, uses a dark mushroom gravy that lends a unique flavour and texture to their poutine), followed by additional or substitute cheeses (generally a bad idea as, for one thing, regular cheese does not melt the same way as cheese curd and, for another, delicate nuances of cheese taste are completely wiped out by the gravy). More and more often, “toppings” are added, such as Montréal-style smoked meat (rendering the entire concoction instantly unkosher), bacon, onions, or mushrooms.

Food nomenclature purists warn us that once you add chicken, it is no longer a Caesar salad; by the same token, once you add pizza toppings to poutine, it is no longer poutine. However, I say “soy milk” all the time, and there is no known way to milk a soybean, so I will accept that chicken Caesar salad and Philly Steak poutine actually exist.

That being said, here we have a restaurant chain from Toronto (with only one planned location in Québec, and it’s going to be at the Mont Tremblant resort) offering a complete range of poutine—from original, to smoked meat, to something with turkey and peas that resembles Thanksgiving dinner (with cheese curds in place of stuffing)—in a market that probably has the most authentically Québecois poutine in Ontario available on every corner.

Far be it from me to shit cast aspersions on entrepreneurial optimism, but Smoke’s business plan (or the local franchisee’s business plan) to sell a product in an area where it’s already entrenched, not to mention culturally significant, seems like a Bad Business Decision on the order of selling coals to Newcastle.

Unless their basic poutine outclasses other local offerings.

This is where I need your help. I don’t eat poutine anymore; as a matter of fact Elgin Street Diner poutine was instrumental in my decision to go vegan. Still, I’m curious as to whether or not Smoke’s has the savoir poutine to survive in this market. If you’ve tried Smoke’s in Ottawa (the sign outside says you get free Pop Shoppe soda with your purchase until tomorrow, or so I saw the other day), please leave a comment. Was it good? Was it great? How does it compare to other local offerings? Ideally, I’d like to hear from people who grew up with poutine (anyone from Montréal?) and those who try the original poutine at Smoke’s.

Thank you, and happy eating.