Monday, December 3, 2012

North of the border

Oh, Canada!
 In 1991, a Canadian reporter asked both parties' candidates for prime minister what their thoughts were on poutine. They both avoided the question and walked away. Clearly, breaching the subject of poutine was a shocking violation of protocol.

Like many comfort foods, this Quebecois fast-food dish is considered a bit declasse. But what can you expect of french fries doused in gravy and topped with cheese curds?

Classic poutine - dark chicken veloute gravy and curds

Poutine was "invented," so the story goes, in a Quebec greasy spoon in 1957, when a take-out customer ordered french fries and wanted them topped off with some gravy, and also with a handful of cheese curds on sale at the counter. "Ca va faire une maudite poutine" ("That's going to make a damn mess"), said the proprietor, but obliged. The customer is always right.

Today, this truck-stop treat has become more well known outside of Canada. Perhaps it's the versatility. Or perhaps it's because it's the perfect combination of fried food, savory sauce, and melting cheese that slakes the universal hunger of those who've had too much to drink - it's starting to catch on in the US.

Here in Los Angeles, you can get poutine at P'tit Soleil, the casual bar next to Soleil Westwood, a French Canadian bistro on Westwood Boulevard, a bit south of the UCLA campus.

Busy Westwood
We came here on a cold and rainy day, after attending an academic conference on one of the leading figures of avant garde composition, so perhaps our brains were drawn to balance the equilibrium with a low-brow lunch.

A glass of Canadian Maudite red ale was a good start.  We reviewed the menu's offering of poutines. although the classic version of poutine uses a rich, deep, peppery chicken-based gravy, in Canada now, there are variations on the sauce.

Some versions elaborate on the meat-gravy style, and P'tit Soleil had some of these, including a version with cognac peppercorn sauce and one with chicken and peas along with the gravy. The other trend is to go with red-sauce or other Mediterranean flavors. There was a version with bolognese sauce, the classic Italian  meat sauce. There was another version with Italian sausage, roast peppers and tomato sauce. A version with merguez sausage and harissa sauce sounded good/ A luxurious version combined the cognac cream gravy with sliced filet mignon and mushrooms. On the exotic side, poutine with mussels au gratin brings the Belgian idea of moules frites all together on one plate - with cheese curds, of course.

How to decide? Well, we were in luck, because P'tit Soleil offered a three-flavor sample. A "flight" of poutine, if you will, though it was hard to think of anything as earthy as poutine getting off the ground.

Poutine flight - Classic, peppercorn and sausage, L to R

We chose the Classic version, the version with cognac peppercorn, and the one with Italian sausage. We ordered a green salad just to keep ourselves virtuous.

The fries were shoestring fries; double-fried so their crispness held up for a long time under the drench of gravy.

There is something about crispy french fried potatoes with smooth and savory gravy that turns into heaven in your mouth. The cheese curds were something else.

Cheese curd
 If you aren't familiar with cheese curds, you're going to have to visit the Upper Midwest of the United State, or the dairylands of Quebec. Little knuckle-sized lumps of cheese, they melt with the gravy or they retain their integrity and give slightly with your bite - a good cheese curd is said to squeak under your teeth from freshness. These are white cheddar curds, with a good, sharp tang.

We gobbled our fried, gooey, cheesey poutine until we were full. The fries at P'tit Soleil held up magnificently, I'll testify; some retaining their crispness even after the gravy had gotten cold.

This is good comfort food on a cold and rainy day.  No wonder the people of the frozen North love it.

Photo courtesy M. Bouffant

But - this is Southern California, after all. P'tit Soleil and its sister restaurant, Soleil Westwood, have great French-Canadian bistro food as well. So if you aren't in the mood for Quebecois truck-stop comfort food, you can have that - or you can go around the corner, where you can get the best Persian sandwiches in town.

This is what I love about L.A. 


M. Bouffant said...

Feel free to use this shot of their flags, w/ the Persian signage behind.

I guessed what this would be about as soon as I saw "poutine" in the blogroll. And now that I know cheese curds aren't just cottage cheese, maybe I really will try some.

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

I have to admit I always thought of cottage cheese when I heard "cheese curds", as well.

Kizz said...

I am so hungry now. Yum!

Jen on the Edge said...


When I first heard about it, I shuddered and thought, "No way."

Then I had some in Quebec City and saw the light. I'm a huge fan now.

Unfortunately, I cannot easily find fresh (as in, squeaky fresh) cheese curds here in our small town, so I don't make poutine very often.

Karen (formerly kcinnova) said...

I have always wanted to try poutine, and a "flight" of poutine must be close to heaven itself!
Tillamook Cheese factory in (where else?) Tillamook, Oregon, has sqeaky cheese. I love the stuff! It's also great fun.

Granted, Canada is closer than L.A., but I am now really hungry for a serving of poutine and sad that I won't be able to have it for supper tonight.

Jen on the Edge said...


When I first heard about it, I shuddered and thought, "No way."

Then I had some in Quebec City and saw the light. I'm a huge fan now.

Unfortunately, I cannot easily find fresh (as in, squeaky fresh) cheese curds here in our small town, so I don't make poutine very often.

Claudia from Idiot's Kitchen said...

Oh. My. God. I want your lunch!

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

I had poutine in a burger joint in Brooklyn. The diners around here serve fries with gravy and melted cheese under the name "disco fries". I dig the squeaky curds, though. I made it a point to try out cheedar curds at the Wisconsin Cheese Pavillion in Baraboo, WI years ago.