In the same New York Times article that suggested that french fries should come in blasphemously-small six-fry servings alongside salads, corporate dietician Elaine Magee added further caution about poutine, which she ranked the least healthy of the many French fry variations.
“This is an example of taking something with fat and salt (french fries), topping it with something that adds more fat and saturated fat (cheese curds), and topping that with something that contributes potentially more fat, saturated fat, and salt (gravy),” Magee said.
With that in mind, I promptly threw caution to the wind, diving head-first into the seventh annual La Poutine Week, held Feb. 1-7. The festival is a celebration of poutine and invites restaurants from across the city to introduce special variations of the dish to their menus. Customers could visit the event website to vote on their favourites, and the team behind the festival also enlisted a group of professional chefs to help identify the best poutine in Montreal.
When I informed friends of my plans to celebrate the week, they told me that I’d be taking years off of my life, and, although I may have actually done so, I still don’t want to hear it. I had to try the latest in gastronomic overkill.
To make my own ‘best poutine’ choice, I settled on a four-point system. The perfect Montreal french fry is brown and crispy on the outside with some fluff on the inside. It must act as a sturdy base for the poutine’s other ingredients. I’m not particularly picky about gravy as long as it’s hot and has a sharp flavour, but the real key to the poutine—the part that holds it all together—is the cheese curd. There should be no other cheese on a poutine: I’ve seen shredded cheese on various poutines, which should be avoided at all costs. The squeakier the cheese curds, the better. Lastly, the unique additions should not take away from the core ingredients; they should complement them.
I started at Dirty Dogs. This St. Laurent restaurant has already mastered gluttony, and their Waffle MacChicken poutine only raised the bar. A ‘small’ is no ordinary small: It is their classic poutine, topped with a waffle, macaroni and cheese, a fried chicken strip, onions, and a drizzle of maple syrup. While the macaroni and cheese is excellent, there was too much salt in the whole dish, and, surprisingly, the sweetness of the maple syrup did not come through enough.
Two days later, on Super Bowl Sunday, I ordered a poutine in a mistake that I can’t decide whether I regret or not. The Burger Bar buffalo chicken poutine had strong potential, but a delivery delay ensured that it wouldn’t meet the mark. Unfortunately, whether it was thirty minutes or sixty, however long it spent in the delivery car was too long. Furthermore, the buffalo chicken was perfectly spicy, but the other core ingredients paled in comparison to offerings elsewhere.
Then came the El Cabron poutine at Taboo Cuisine Rebelle. This dish was a two-for-one special, serving up nachos on top of a poutine base. It delivered on both fronts. The french fry was perfect, the gravy flavourful, and the nacho toppings—once there were no chips left—made for a fun variation on the chili cheese fry. The cheese curds left a little to be desired, however: They were not quite fresh enough for my liking.
Fried chicken made another appearance at Mon Petit Poulet, which is no surprise given the restaurant’s name. Delivered quickly, thanks to a lack of Super Bowl business, their classic poutine topped with crispy popcorn chicken bites was delicious. The fries were firm and well-done, the cheese curds perfectly squeaky, and there was even spice to the gravy, which I would have liked to see more of throughout the week.
On Feb. 7, the final day of the festival, I concluded that though there were many strong contenders, the poutine from Taboo was the clear winner. It brought the calorie count up to a number that I just don’t want to compute. I need to work out more.