Located in Mile End, Comptoir 21 is best known for fish & chips, which I am told are very good. But here’s a lesser known fact: they may serve up the best poutine in Montreal.
This is a small charmingly rickety snack bar with most table space being an old-school curved lunch counter with revolving seats. It is located on the hipster strip of Saint Viateur and was well-packed with guys in lumberjack shirts sporting perfectly manicured beards and their blasé iphone-toting twentysomething girlfriends with oversized glasses, ugly ironic sweaters and designer rubber boots.
Bedford is a small nondescript town 15km north of the Vermont border. Though founded by British Loyalists, it is now over 75% francophone. Its biggest claim to fame: Quebec disco-funk legend Boule Noire.
The town’s snack bar is called BARRY. Not Casse-croute Barry or Restaurant Barry, just BARRY, in ALL CAPS, like this:
Mâche, an attractive new restaurant on Montreal’s tacky Latin Quarter strip, specializes in Quebecois comfort food. It’s surprisingly hard to find restaurants that serve paté chinois, ragout de pattes and pouding chomeur in Montreal, so this is a welcome addition to the area. The interior decoration is simple yet effective.
Sherbrooke (pop. 201,890) may be the fourth largest metropolitan area in Quebec, but don’t get your hopes up. You drive through some of the ugliest sprawl in Quebec (King street) to get downtown, and there isn’t much going on when you get there. The two universities in Sherbrooke should give the city a youthful vibe, but the campuses are out in the boonies and, judging by the tumbleweeds and boarded-up facades downtown, students don’t spend much time outside their dorm rooms. Because it was settled by Brits and Loyalists, people hype up Sherbrooke as a slice of New England in Quebec, which is true if you’re thinking of a grim post-industrial New England milltown (i.e. Manchester, NH; Lowell, MA) rather than a vibrant and quaint New England college town you might actually want to visit (i.e. Burlington, VT; Northampton, MA). Last but not least, Sherbrooke has the unfortunate distinction of being the hometown of Jean Charest.
But Sherbrooke isn’t all bad. There are a few nice buildings around and a handful of interesting shops and restaurants in the dreary downtown. The city is more ethno-linguistically diverse than most other cities in the province. And it’s right on the edge of Quebec’s poutine heartland, giving it access to lots of good squeaky cheese suppliers. In the words of a friend who was exiled here for a few years: “It’s boring as hell, but they make damn good poutine.”
Although poutine was once regarded as a national embarrassment, Martin Picard is famous for giving the dish its “lettres de noblesse” over a decade ago. He reinvented the cholesterol-heavy dish by adding a chunk of fancy foie-gras, making it even unhealthier. This had the added effect of simultaneously blurring the lines between high and low food culture. Kudos to Picard. It was a clever reinvention.
Unfortunately, this led to an increasingly tiresome wave of copycat chefs reinventing poutine by slapping some additional novelty ingredient on top – everything from duck confit, to roast beef & stilton, to Vietnamese bahn-mi toppings. Many of these designer poutines would not taste very good if you reduced them to the three base ingredients – they rarely use squeaky-fresh cheese, for instance – but adding that slab of foofiness distracts us from the poorly-executed base. I don’t like the idea that you can only elevate poutine by adding some expensive bling to it. Bling is easy – although this added chunk of fatty foie gras felt clever a decade ago, it is looking increasingly bling these days.
I think it’s time to go back to basics. The real chef’s challenge is getting that base perfectly right: making sure the fries have enough crisp and taste, sourcing a place that will provide big chunks of day-fresh squeaky cheese instead of the usual crumbly industrial foodservice distributor crap served up in Montreal restaurants (hint: go to the Bois-Francs), and whipping up the perfect home-made gravy with drippings to make those other ingredients shine. I have tasted many celebrity-chef poutines and have yet to see a chef get those three things right.
The Burgundy Lion is a British-style gastropub in the up-and-coming Little Burgundy district of Montreal. The atmosphere is pleasant, though lacking the heritage character of the Dominion Square Tavern, my favourite gastropub in town. The menu has lots of British classics (Bangers & Mash, Fish & Chips, Chicken Tikka Masala), all served with a slight local twist.
They also have something called an “English poutine.” Unlike the “Irish Poutine” at McKibbins, which does not offer much in the way of Irish ingredients, this poutine is more coherent in its attempt at fusion cuisine. They use a classic British onion gravy typically reserved for bangers & mash, add a bit of Stilton if you wish, and throw in some traditional roast beef. The chips, however, aren’t exactly your standard thick-cut British version.
Incidentally, I always thought “Yorkshire Poutine” would make a good fusion food – those empty eggy popovers (AKA Yorkshire pudding) are just crying for some fries, cheese, and gravy to liven them up. But I digress…
Ever since I started this blog, I’ve been telling myself I should try some of the big-chain corporate poutines out there. Unfortunately, life is too short to waste your time at places like McDonald’s, and I don’t want to shorten it even more by actually eating there. Last week, on a ride between Quebec City and Montreal, the driver stopped at one of those soulless chain store truck stops by the side of the highway to grab a coffee at Tim Horton’s. I was stranded and hungry. If there’s one thing I dislike more than McDonald’s, it’s Tim Horton’s (and their attempt to reduce our national identities to overly sweet coffee and terrible donuts), so here was my chance. Upon entering McDonald’s for the first time in twenty years, I was shocked to find that poutine was no longer on the menu. Luckily, it turns out the displayed menu has no relation to what the restaurant actually sells. I got my complimentary smile, grabbed my take-out bag, and ran out to eat my McPoutine.