MONTREAL — Our Montreal friends are always a little embarrassed about poutine, which is often deemed the Quebec National Dish. The conglomeration of deep-fried potatoes, salty brown gravy, and squeaky fresh cheese curds is best, they say, as a prophylactic against a hangover. After a long night in the bars, smart Quebecois head to a diner to consume a heaping bowl of poutine under cover of darkness.
But an increasing number of Canadian — and even American — chefs have begun to re-imagine poutine by treating it as a blank slate for creative embellishment. The most Franco-Canadian of comfort foods has emerged into the bright light of day to star at the Montreal Poutinefest. As the name suggests, it is a gathering of the tribes — or the food trucks, in most cases — to celebrate the aesthetic and gastronomic possibilities of spuds, gravy, and cheese.
Festival cofounder Greg Hubert was already serving barbecue poutine at his Montreal restaurant Le Smoking BBQ, which specializes in “low and slow” barbecue in the style of the American south. His barbecue poutine also proved a big hit at a ribs festival in Ontario. In a moment of inspiration, he wondered, why not a festival celebrating poutine in its native province of Quebec?
Greg and his father, Roger, organized the first Montreal Poutinefest in fall 2015. It was so successful, Greg recalled, “that we had to close the gates three times.” Between 40,000 and 50,000 people a day showed up to see what the chefs had concocted. Last year, the Huberts recruited more vendors and staked out the park on the Quai de l’Horloge (Clocktower Quay) on the Montreal waterfront for three days in June. This year the Montreal Poutinefest will run six days in August.
At the 2016 event, Greg Hubert’s truck was always one of the busiest. He offered poutine topped with either barbecued ribs or pulled pork. Both were smothered in poutine gravy and barbecue sauce made from scratch. We can attest that the generous baskets of Le Smoking BBQ poutine represented a harmonious marriage of American and French-Canadian comfort foods.
In fact, Americans would do well not to be too dismissive of the calorie-laden poutine. It seems that one of the most popular variations is a heaping basket of cheeseburger poutine. Cheeseburger and fries may not be the most original combination, but other options definitely push the envelope.
“People make crazy poutine,” Greg Hubert told us with obvious delight. It didn’t take us long to discover such variants as General Tao poutine and a Mexican poutine featuring salsa, sour cream, guacamole, black olives, and jalapeños atop the potatoes, gravy, and cheese curds. “Most everything done on poutine is usually good,” Hubert assured us.
Performances by Quebec folksingers and French language pop music blasting over loudspeakers grounded the festival in Montreal, even when we were chomping down on Greek poutine. And venerable local foodways got a nod from the Maison Smokies truck. The Jewish delis of Mile End made “smoked meat” a delicacy known across Canada. Similar to pastrami, “smoked meat” is beef brisket dry-cured with salt and spices, hot smoked, and finally steamed before serving. No kosher deli would ever serve it with cheese, but Maison Smokies was selling a lot of baskets of smoked meat poutine, complete with a couple of plump half-sour pickles. Just like Bubbie wished she could have made it.
Our only complaint about the Poutinefest is that portions are too generous. Since even a small serving is generally enough for two adults (or one teenager), it’s hard to sample all the variations of poutine cuisine. We tend to run out of appetite before we exhaust our curiosity. We’ve been doing the math. With two meals a day, the expanded festival might let us get to some of the more esoteric options.
Given our all-too-human limitations, we trusted our instincts about what sounded (or smelled) good. We couldn’t resist the aroma of jerk chicken and pork cooking over a grill outside Seasoned Dreams. Jae Anthony’s parents hail from Barbados and Trinidad and he channels his Caribbean heritage in his restaurant and his mobile booth. To inject more flavor into a dish that he found too bland while growing up in Montreal, he infuses his poutine sauce with jerk flavorings — including hot peppers. The extra zing definitely gave jerk poutine a kick.
Such special sauces are often the “secret” ingredient in gussied-up poutines. Last summer, Ottawa-based Jesse Teasdale and Jane Racicot presented a dish with some unusually luxe ingredients at their truck, the Grilled Cheeserie. To make lobster bacon poutine, they simmered lobster carcasses with salt, garlic, and pepper to make stock, which they thickened with cream and seasoned with double-smoked bacon. The rich gravy topped hand-cut fries and generous chunks of boiled lobster. “We try to take poutine to another level,” Teasdale said.
Unless they’re in the pay of the deep-fryer lobby, nutritionists are unlikely to approve of poutine. But we reasoned that we could eat lots of salad once we got back home. And if we limited our fry intake, we found one poutine that was actually pretty healthy.
Gérôme Paquette is the millennial chef of a small local chain of neighborhood restaurants called L’Gros Luxe. His vegetarian Thai poutine is intended, he said, for customers who are “more cautious about what they are eating.” Paquette makes a vegetarian gravy flavored with the same spices as the meat gravy, and he lets vegans opt out of the cheese curds. (We’d argue for keeping the curds, since that tooth squeak is an essential component of the poutine experience.) Paquette topped the potatoes and curds with bean sprouts, sliced green onions, peanuts, chopped cilantro, and a squirt each of sriracha and hoisin sauce. He garnished with a cut lime for squeezing. The striking dish was his best seller at the Poutinefest.
“The veggie gravy makes the whole thing,” Paquette said.
With all deference, we’d disagree. We think that the music of the food was the key — the contrast between the crunch of the bean sprouts and the squeak of the cheese curds. And if you can’t get enough of the cheese, the Captain Curds stand did away with all that distracting gravy and french fries. They sold 100-gram baskets of deep-fried curds for what they advertised as “Cheesy Awesomeness.”
If you go . . .
Quai de l’Horloge,
Montreal Vieux Port
Free admission. Poutine $6-$15 (Canadian $8-$20).Patricia Harris and David Lyon, proprietors of HungryTravelers.com, can be reached at harrislyon@