Last weekend I went to Joliette, a small city 50 km northeast of Montreal. Founded in the 1820s under the evocative name “L’Industrie,” the city still has a large tire factory and “the biggest gravel quarry in the region.” The central area is a strange mix of charming heritage buildings and horrendously tacky 1980s postmodern crap. One of the ugliest buildings in town houses what may be the best small art museum in the province. This surprising museum would be enough to justify a visit, but there’s also Restaurant Henri (AKA Chez Henri).
Chez Henri is a local legend. This 24-hour restaurant draws people from surrounding towns for its famous fries. Located on Joliette’s main fast food strip, Chez Henri was the only restaurant with nary a place to park. The mascot is an adorable large one-armed orange “H” with a crown (available as a stuffed toy for only $10). I first heard about Chez Henri in this cheesy 1991 CBC-TV feature about poutine, an interesting period piece from the days before poutine became legendary and English Canadians appropriated it as their own creation.
Chez Claudette used to be my regular 3AM poutine spot back in my 1990s undergrad days. It was your typical Québécois greasy spoon. Claudette herself was often there to greet you. A new inspirational quote could be found on the cash register every day. The standard poutine was okay, but the “bourguignonne” with beef and onions was a perfect late night snack. If you’d stayed out later, you could even replace the fries with breakfast home fries.
Tonight, a friend of mine who just moved back to Montreal from Quebec City wanted to recreate that experience. Another friend warned us that the restaurant “had been bought up by a bunch of Arabs” and that everything had gone downhill since then. I told him that I appreciated his quotability, but that he should try to be more politically correct for the sake of my blog. He replied that many of his best friends are Arabs.
La Banquise was recently named the best place in the world to get a poutine by Travel & Leisure magazine. This is no small statement. Unlike other fast food joints in the city, they put their poutine front and center, offering over 20 different variations on the dish. It’s become a famous late night spot for hip young students, who can order a microbrew with their poutine in a colorful casual atmosphere.
I decided to try their standard poutine, without the bells and whistles. If they can get the foundation right, the rest surely follows. Unfortunately, the hype did not stand up to my rigorous scientific analysis.
Opened in 1967, this Greek-run restaurant has retro-kitsch charm. Old-school neon lights in the windows, leatherette stools, juke boxes in the booth seats and plenty of local characters. Service is friendly. There’s a Journal de Montreal on many of the tables, and they generally listen to the hockey game on the radio if the Habs are playing. And now for the poutine…