I Dream of Poutine

Michael Nagrant / 06.19.06

T-Rex poutine at La Banquise.

America is the land of the obese, the home of McDonald’s, purveyor of deep fried Twinkies, inventor of Buffalo wings, mass consumer of pizza, and yet we still cede our title of supreme imperial culinary hedonism to Canada by not adopting poutine, a cholesterol bomb of French fries topped with cheese curds and gravy.

Legend has it that in 1957 at Fernand LeChance in Warwick, Quebec, a customer ordered fries while waiting for his cheese curds from the Kingsey cheese factory in Kingsey Falls. The proprietor, Lachance is said to have exclaimed ça va faire une maudite poutine (“it will make a hell of a mess”).

While I am an eager consumer of cardiac cuisine, I am embarrassed to say that it took me almost thirty years to try poutine. I wonder how I lived without it. It’s partly a tale of never having visited Quebec, and also partly about my hatred of chili cheese fries. Too much substandard Hormel, cheese whiz, and soggy taters were foisted upon my palate, and I figured poutine was just the poor Canadian cousin.

When I drew as a child, I expected that using all sixty four Crayola crayons would result in a VanGogh burst of creative magic, but all I ended up with was a color flecked brown spot. You expect the culinary equivalent for poutine, how do all these disparate and soft ingredients not melt into one mélange of gross blandness?

Yet, the motto of any food obsessed person should be “I’ll try anything twice.” How do you know you didn’t get a bad version the first time? Poutine hadn’t even gotten one shot, and so last week while on vacation in Montreal, I headed over to La Banquise, a glowing orange temple of haute poutine.

La Banquise slings the classic with gravy and cheese curds, but they also rock it out with approximately thirty other varieties including the four we ordered: “Elvis”, topped with steak, mushroom, and green peppers (it really should be called the Philly, everyone knows real Elvis poutine would be topped with fried pickles and peanut butter), “T-Rex” with bacon, smoked meat, and Italian sausage, “B.O.M.” topped with bacon, onion, and Merguez sausage, and finally, the “healthy” option., “Chicken and Peas”.

chicken peas poutine
Each of the elements of the poutine at La Banquise maintains its integrity and distinctive flavor. When the dishes hit the table, the glistening pepper flecked brown gravy was so thick it quivered. Yet, under the weight of the gravy, the fries stayed crispy. Most poutine aficionados say the cheese curds have to be squeaky, i.e. an unripened dense Good Year tire state, such that they squeak against the enamel of your teeth as they pass through to your gullet. At La Banquise they don’t disappoint. The hard curds soften under the heat of the gravy, but they don’t melt, and you can taste the salt and creaminess.

The chicken and peas tasted like a crispy shepherd’s pie, the Elvis, like pepper steak on a plate, and the B.O.M and T-Rex were a rich porky heaven. The childhood fears induced by bad chili fries slipped away, and the only hiccup of the poutine experience is that I expected the Merguez to be a charcoal roasted rustic textured ground lamb full of cumin and cloves. Instead it was more like a cayenne and cumin infused chopped Ball Park frank.

La Banquise is open twenty four hours, and rumor is that they do their best business in the early morning hours. I can’t imagine any better way to stave off a hangover – the viscosity of the gravy is enough to force the alcohol out of your stomach. I’ll have to settle for greasy taqueria fare and deep dish pizza here in Chicago, and in the meantime, I’ll just dream of poutine.

La Banquise is located at 994 Rue Rachel Est in Montreal. Phone is 514-525-2415.