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In Praise of Poutine

Burger King offers it, but only in Canada. Wendy’s recently began offering it in Canada, too. And when the first Canadian Smashburger opened this month in Calgary, it was on the menu.

Wendy's didn't just add poutine in Canada; it launched a "Poutition.ca" campaign to get it declared Canada's national dish.

“It” is poutine, the iconic Canadian/Québécois side dish of crisp french fries and squeaky cheese curds covered in brown gravy. As these three American burger chains—and countless Canadian burger chains including The Works Gourmet Burger Bistro and m:brgr—know, one of the things poutine goes with well is a burger.

More and more American burger bars and other restaurants are catching on. Poutine is tasty, fun and messy and some of the best young American chefs are having a ball with it. And with snack foods such a restaurant growth trend, poutine’s presence is likely to keep expanding.

“We have two versions of poutine on our menu, Gravy Frites with pommes frites, mozzarella cheese curd and brown gravy, and Animal Frites with bacon, two fried eggs, whole-grain mustard, mozzarella cheese curd and brown gravy,” says Jonathon Sawyer, chef-owner of The Greenhouse Tavern in Cleveland and one of Food & Wine’s 2010 Best New Chefs. His Greenhouse Tavern’s Grass-Fed Beef Burger with raclette cheese, tomato, pommes frites and pickle rated an honorable mention on Midwest Living magazine’s list of the Midwest’s 25 best burgers.

“We’ve had poutine on our menu since we opened, and we’ve also featured different versions in the past like carbonara frites with pancetta, pecorino and black pepper and B.O.B. frites with sausage gravy,” says Sawyer. “It definitely didn’t take long for Clevelanders to get on board with the idea and they are some of our biggest sellers. Most customers who ask about it give it a try and love it. Poutines are a huge hit on our late-night menu.”

Corner Burger in Brooklyn, N.Y., offers three varieties of “American Style Poutine,” and then seven others for good measure. The Greek Poutine layers feta cheese over fries and tops it with oregano, sliced olives and, of course, gravy. In Manahattan, Dive Bar describes its house poutine as “A heap of Dive Bar Fries studded with farm-fresh Cheddar curd cheese that melts under hot, thick gravy. Tremendously satisfying.” No doubt.

Greenhouse Tavern's Animal Frites Poutine

Troy Graves, chef-partner at recently opened Red Door in Chicago, which is becoming quite poutine partial, says he has “always been a fan of poutine. At Red Door, poutine is made with cheese curds from Brunkow Dairy in Wisconsin, spring peas, chicken slow cooked in duck fat and a curry gravy. We have just opened and this by far is the best-selling dish so far.” And that includes the $10 Red Door Burger with bacon-onion jam, semi-soft butterkäse cheese and apple slaw.

At Chicago barbecue joint The Southern, Executive Chef Cary Taylor does “a fun take on poutine called the Southern Mess: Hand-cut fries with tasso ham gravy, Wisconsin cheese curds and rosemary. We even do a brunch version with a fried egg. Here in Chicago, people love hearty bar food like that, so it didn’t take any arm-twisting for them to try.”

Craig Fass, executive chef and owner of Chicago burger joint Bad Apple said it took a few months for poutine to catch on. “But we knew if this country could put that melted cheese spread on their fries, it wouldn’t take long for the real deal to take off. Before we opened, we traveled to Montreal for Jazz Fest and fell in love with the city, people, culture and, of course, the food. There are so many different kinds of poutine, there is almost no wrong way of reinventing it. I love that Chicago has warmed up to the task of putting this tasty and sinful treat in our bellies.”

Red Door's chicken-confit poutine

His version uses chicken stock base to make the requisite gravy and cheese curds from Wisconsin. “It’s rich and delicious, kind of like a Turkey Day gravy,” Fass says.

The poutine pairs brilliantly with Bad Apple’s $10 BLT & BC Burger, an amalgam of St. Agur double crème blue cheese, bacon, arugula and oven-dried tomato confit on an herbed focaccia bun.

Like burgers, poutine can be endlessly reimagined. “I wasn’t interested in putting straight, traditional poutine on the menu,” says Dirk Flanigan, executive chef at The Gage tavern in Chicago. “So my recipe features wild boar, stewed vegetables and cheese curds. I’m going for ‘elegance and refinement’ by adding stewed vegetables that makes the dish more colorful and texturally interesting. It’s super hearty. Diners loved the idea of french fries and cheese, and it’s been one of our most popular late-night dishes since we opened.”

If you’re interested in putting poutine on your menu, check out this recipe from Chuck Hughes, chef/co-owner of Montreal’s Garde Manger and Le Bremner restaurants and host of “Chuck’s Day Off” on Cooking Channel.

4 comments to In Praise of Poutine

  • I’d love to see poutine in Europe…

  • Lisa

    It’s on my bucket list to try the real deal. Someone needs to bring it down south.

  • Deborah Ross

    For a Southwest twist: Try green chili with Cheddar cheese with or without fried egg on top of the fries. Thick cut fries are especially good this way (one of my biggest cravings).

  • Tom

    “Gourmet” poutine is for amateurs. Good fries and today’s curd, with a nice gravy/sauce poured over top needs no elaboration (except perhaps a little pepper). I can get better poutine at a chip ruck or diner, where I live, than any of these ridiculously pretentious creations could ever dream of being.

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