Published by TheFoodMonkey on 30 Sep 2009 at 11:38 am
If ever you were to make the short journey north to Montreal for an evening of youthful frivolity, most likely you would end up capping off your nocturnal activities with a plate overflowing with poutine. Poutine is the quintessential Montreal late night post-adult-beverage snack, and typically consists of french fries covered in gravy, and topped with a cheddar cheese curd. It is the type of food that it seems magical elves come out at midnight and enchant, so that it tastes especially delicious around 1 to 2am.
Like its American analog, the late night slice, everyone in Montreal has their favorite place to get poutine (Famous Original Ray’s Poutine?), and their favorite style. Also like pizza, would be Wolfgang Pucks have brought poutine to higher culinary levels. Most notably, Chef Martin Picard of Au Pied de Cochon, where I had perhaps the best meal of my life, is known for adding foie gras to his poutine. He is also known for saying, “When you go to a restaurant to eat salad, you have a problem.” On my last trip to Montreal, I also enjoyed an excellent poutine with duck confit, which really hooked me on the dish.
Poutine emerged in rural Quebec around the late 1950s, and there are several conflicting stories about its origins. It is thought that the word poutine is a French derivative of the English word pudding. Over the years, “poutine” has taken on many meanings, such as being a derogatory moniker for an obese person, and meaning “a mixture of various things”. As poutine is a mixture of various things that will invariably make you obese, the modern usage of the word seems to follow naturally.
A few months ago, I was contacted by the Montreal Board of Tourism, and was informed that they would like me to take Katerine Rollet, their official food writer and founder of the blog The Epicurian Life, around Boston to seek out culinary connections between our two cities. Boston is one of the biggest feeder cities of tourism to Montreal, and by pointing out where Bostonians can find a little taste of the French Canadian in their town, we could remind Boston of the fun that’s just a little drive up north.
After some thought, I recalled several Boston area establishments that served poutine in various forms. Thus, with stomachs fully prepped to receive mountains of starch, Katerine and I embarked on a quest to try every poutine place that I could find.
So you might ask, where can one find poutine in Boston? In our journey, we sampled from:
- Harvest Restaurant near Harvard Square
- All Star Sandwich Bar near Inman Square
- Gargoyles on the Square in Davis Square
- The Beehive in the South End
After an evening on starch mountain, I was truly surprised with our findings: Every poutine we tried was legitimately good, and every poutine we tried was different.
An Overview of Poutine in Boston
Harvest Restaurant – $12
Harvest Restaurant, located on Brattle Street near Harvard Square, has a nice cozy yet upscale feeling. The poutine they offer there has hand cut french fries, cheese curd, bacon, with a chicken velouté. This dish didn’t taste or feel like a traditional poutine, but it was warm, gentle, and an ideal comfort food–perfect for a blustery winter day, wrapped in a blanket by a crackling fire.
To address the obvious, the bacon, of course, was a delicious addition, and a great vehicle for some salinity, rather than fries doused with salt. What was most notable about this particular poutine, and indeed defined the character of the dish, was the chicken velouté. The word velouté means “velvety” in French, and it is essentially a stock thickened by a roux. The chicken velouté merged with the melted cheese curd gave the dish a smooth, and yes velvety, texture, which reminded me of a wonderfully crafted macaroni and cheese made with cream.
This is a unique, refined take on poutine, and is worth trying for yourself when you are in need of some good comfort food.
All Star Sandwich Bar – $5.95
At All Star Sandwich Bar in Inman Square, brothers Johnny and Kosta Diamantopoulos serve poutine to remind them of the many trips they made to Montreal in their youth. All Star Sandwich Bar is a great laid back joint that seems made for hanging out and enjoying a massive mountain of gravy and cheese covered fries. It’s clear that both Johnny and Kosta love their work, and a great sense of fun runs through the restaurant. Did I mention they have free Oreos for you to take on your way out? I can’t think of a more fitting palate cleanser for poutine than an Oreo.
The best part of the poutine at All Star Sandwich Bar is the use of a mozzarella curd instead of a cheddar curd. The mozzarella is very light and airy, and makes the poutine seem less heavy, and enables you to eat a lot more of it without feeling as if a cement mixer just emptied its contents into your GI tract. My Montreal guests were very interested in the use of chives, which added a crunchy textural counterpoint to the fries, cheese, and gravy. If it were not for the fact that I was pacing myself for two more dishes of poutine with one already under my belt beforehand, I could have easily finished the whole dish myself.
Overall, All Star Sandwich Bar is a great place to enjoy poutine in the ambiance in which it was intended to be enjoyed. Also, it’s the only place where the poutine comes at the poutine appropriate price of $5.95.
Gargoyles on the Square – $14
Executive Chef Jason Santos from Gargoyles on the Square, known for his edgy cuisine, has created a foie gras poutine, with smoked gouda, rosemary, and duck fat gravy. The poutine at Gargoyles, located in Davis Square, is by far the most luxurious and over-the-top poutine you can get in Boston. This poutine joyfully smacks you on the back to say hi with in-your-face flavors, in contrast to the gentle embrace of the poutine at Harvest.
Several facets of this poutine make it stand out. First, and most obviously, is the foie gras, which is folded into the cheese and gravy (NB: We received whole slice on top for filming presentation) to make everything even more creamy. Because the other flavors are so bold in this dish, it is difficult to actually taste the full flavor of the foie gras. However, it makes its presence known texturally, and does indeed add to the dish. What I liked most about this poutine was the starch covered waffle fries. The starch becomes flecks of crispy batter and gives these fries an excellent flavorful crunch. The smoked gouda was also yet another strong choice, contributing to this delicious flavor sledgehammer of a poutine.
Overall, this is a great poutine to share, and is not for the faint (or clogged) of heart!
The Beehive – $10
While the other restaurants have been doing their best to make their own twist on poutine, at The Beehive in the South End, they strive for true authenticity. The reason for this is because the general manager of The Beehive, Bertil Jean-Chonberg, is a Montreal native as well as a founder of L’Express, one of the most preeminent classic restaurants in Montreal. “I have had the poutine on my heart for all my life,” said Bertil, and explained that he even went to the extent of arranging a special agreement with the Canadian and US governments so that he could import the original Canadian cheddar cheese curds. Unfortunately, due to changed restrictions, they cannot no longer get this cheese, but after scouring the country, he has found the closest local equivalent.
I enjoyed this poutine immensely, for the love that was put into it, and for the painstaking authenticity involved in its production. The cut of the potatoes was the perfect thickness, the cheese was melty and flavorful, and the gravy brought everything together in a way that was not overpowering. This was the fourth poutine of the night, and it’s a great testament to the balance of flavors that we finished it all. This poutine was the clear favorite of my guests from Montreal. However, it was a little tough disambiguate their love for the poutine and their love for Bertil himself!
I was very impressed, overall, with the poutine I found in Boston. I was truly expecting to find places that served the poutine equivalent of the KFC famous bowl, but discovered that the chefs from each place we visited had really taken the time to think out their vision for how each of the constituent building blocks of this simple late night dish would come together into something delicious, filling, and new.