Saturday, February 8, 2014

In Defence of the Basics

Not sure how many of you are in the local poutine loop, but for those of you who may not know, here in Montreal the days between February 2nd and 9th are dedicated to sampling and rating of glorious poutine (quelle bonne idée!). 

In local parlance, we've taken to calling this 7-day clogged artery crawl, La semaine de la poutine


Which, don't get me wrong, is all good. A whole calendar week dedicated to the tasting and talking of poutine? What could be a more perfect winter sport? Especially when Poutine Week corresponds - oh so poetically - with the opening week of the Olympic Games. 


It's just that the thing that's missing in our far more inclusive version of Poutine Week is, well - poutine. 

The raw material of that beloved national dish of comfort - fried potatoes, fresh curds and gravy - are the only merits on which any poutine can truly be judged. In my humble-pied opinion. 

So, heaping a bunch of other weird stuff on top, or (worse) tinkering with the very definition of what those three basic ingredients should be, pretty much violates the whole natural order of poutine - and by extension, the world. 

Alas, most of the competitors featured along the Boulevard of Broken New Year's Resolutions that is La semaine de la poutine here in Montreal are all pimped out to the point of being rendered completely unrecognizable. 

Here's just one example of a per"version" that's on the list for this week: A "poutine" featuring gnocchi, seal meat merquez sausage, Brussel sprouts, and cheese (oh, cheese! remember cheese?), all covered in a "robust sauce". Which is good, because something with a certain amount of robustness has got to spread itself out and pull all those disparate interlopers together ...! 

God forbid our children get exposed to this kind of french fried freak of nature.

I love a good, HEALTHY COMPETITION as much as the next person. But as a fries, curd and gravy purist - and a personal rights and freedoms loving humanist - I must state here for the record that the wrong version of Poutine Week is promoting and celebrating the idea of unconditional inclusiveness. 

Saturday, January 25, 2014

A Little Out of the Way

Although there are surely arguments to be made that seeking out the most perfect poutine is a valid full-time pursuit, I have resolved to keep it as a small but vital side project to my main occupation of birthing my next screenplays.

So the good news is, this week I was more productive than poutine-needing. And the bad news is, this week I was more productive than poutine-needing. Because when I got home yesterday after completing a pass on my road map for a full second draft (which you can read more about HERE!), I was suddenly jonesing for my screenplay side dish. 

It was minus 2000 degrees outside, though, so I looked to a poutine place much closer to home. 


3 - A Little Out of the Way Place in Montreal
Poutine "maison" - $6.29 (approx.)


No discernible odour, but on entry, the place made me smile. It felt... homey. The flat screen TV played the audio channel Galaxie Jazz Masters in the background. The placemats were unfortunately not of the Bienvenue Welcome variety, but acceptable in their unpretentiousness. The waitress looked - uncannily - much like me. And while there were some peppers in jars, they were much smaller than the ones other places favour for decoration and here unfortunately they are kept hidden from sight in the fridge. 

No other clients were in the place when I got there. There was a nice young guy in a toque who appeared from the basement - did some dishes and then left. Must have been the end of his shift. Anyway, after that, I was, for all intents and purposes alone in the place. I chose a comfortable spot on one of the two brown leather seats in the place - I noticed (with mild dismay) that its upholstery had started to crack from age and use. 

It's a pretty quiet residential street. A couple young families on one side of the place, an old feisty Romanian woman and her divorced daughter on the other, and large mature trees lining the whole long street that runs south to north. Parking can sometimes be tricky, but the place has one dedicated spot right out front that I was able to use.

Exceptionally here, I have created a separate category to talk about the service. Because it was - well, exceptional. It was like the waitress could read my mind. She knew exactly what I wanted at the very instant I decided I wanted it. Again, uncanny.

Portion: "maison". Served on a mismatched set of what looks like Ikea-inspired dinner ware. The portions were frankly generous - all you could eat, really.

French fried potatoes: Here, the interpretation of the term, French fried potatoes has definitely been taken loosely. While one could argue the main ingredient is potato. And that some form of frying had to have happened to the raw potato. And I was eating them in a predominantly French-speaking neighbourhood. No French fried potato I've ever encountered looked quite like this one. Again though, it was minus 2000 outside so I guess they might have been forced to work with what they had on hand. That said, these French fried potatoes weren't half bad once you got used to the fact they weren't actually French fries.

Sauce: Of the bottled variety. But pleasingly for this prairie girl anyway, full of good homey, hops and barley style flavour. Comfort.

Curds:  I cannot hide behind any pretence of objectivity on the curd question. This, even more than the sauce, or the fry is the hinge on which hangs the pleasure (or not) of poutine. In the case of this little out of the way place, I had FULL CURD CONTROL. And every little raw nugget had the perfect level of squeak and spring. 

Blend: Proportions of potato to curd to sauce was in absolute perfect balance because of the unique Do It Yourself nature of this particular poutine. While it was most definitely a compromise compared to a real poutine, for the particular time, the temperature and my temperament, it was its own version of perfect.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Changing the Plan de Match

Yesterday I needed some of the productive procrastination that the Screenplay Side Project was designed for. I managed to do some writing in the morning, but by noon my creative juices had completely dried up. So, true to my promise to myself, and to the process, I packed up my laptop and went on a poutine walkabout. 

When I left my office, I originally had my sights set on a place I talked about at the end of my first post - Plan de Match - but when I got to the North East end of town and went in to the tavern, it wasn't quite as the exterior advertised. Inside, I was met by an artful chalkboard menu listing cottage brewery beers on tap, and designer ambient lighting overhead. The enticing original dive had become what's called a "hypertaverne" (tavern euphemism for - gentrified), and poutine was apparently one of the first casualties of the hyperization.

So I turned around and went to a place I pass everyday going to and from my house. Its sign is fantastic. A real relic of a bygone era rising two stories above the actual restaurant and composed of all kinds of fading retro detailing...

2 - Capri Delicatessen (coin de Lorimier et Rosemont, Montréal)
Poutine régulière - $6.00
No credit. No cheques.

Right away, the place made me smile. It's made up of two, side-by-side railcar narrow rooms full of booths with faded brown leatherette upholstery and low stools at the diner style counter. The lone TV dominating the middle of the room was tuned to the news feed of the second day commission sur la charte of quebec values. I took a seat in one of the booths where I had my very own juke box. Each and every booth had one!! I was in heaven. And yes, there was the requisite Bienvenue Welcome placemats, the big glass of water and the peppers in jars that had no intention of ever leaving them. Despite the juke box at every booth, there was no music playing. Just the LCN channel in the background. On the plasticized menu, the usual suspects were on offer, alongside some classic Chinese Canadian dishes. And poutine.

One Waitress - her short, short cropped brown hair, and her white t-shirt went well with her burly body language. I was the only female customer in the place. The others, to the man, wore baseball caps. At least one did not wear his upper teeth.  With each new arrival, it becomes clear, everyone in this place knows everyone else - at least on casual joking terms. As the rush hour for take-out picked up, a jolly, too-loud, long haired waitress arrived for her shift to take the increasing calls and handle the cash - and in between, related her snappy comebacks to vaguely obscene prank phone calls to anyone who would listen. By the time I paid my bill, there was more colourful staff than colourful customers in the place. 

A little edgy - the place is at a major intersection of a halfway house row, where there's a proportionately large population of older, single, slightly frayed at the edges men. On the same block you'll find: a Karaoke bar with a live DJ, a massage spa with one-way windows offering "relaxation", a dollar store, and an insta-cheque outlet. 

Portion: Moyenne. Served on a proper diner style side plate - and on the generous side plate of moyenne.

French fried potatoes: This one was a real equal opportunity poutine - no age-ism or racism prevented the older used-up fries, the darker fries, the broken, stubby or recycled fries from being included in the same plate with the younger, lighter, healthier variety. In fact, they were the majority. In the whole plate, there was maybe one or two more fresh-faced junior fries that still gave off a strong essence of the potato from which they came. The rest, however, tasted only of the old oil and bitter disappointment they’d been marinating in.

Sauce: Unlike most poutine sauces in town, this one was of the department store cafeteria brown variety that came on the plates of fries and gravy my friends and I would splurge on on Saturday trips to the mall out west where I grew up. The kind of sauce that, if you leave it sit for a few minutes, grows a very light shiny skin and can almost be mistaken for burnt butterscotch pudding. But - pleasingly for this prairie girl anyway - full of good homey, stock style flavour. Comfort.

Curds: Again, I cannot hide behind any pretence of objectivity on the curd question. This, even more than the sauce, or the fry is the hinge on which hangs the pleasure (or not) of poutine. In the case of the Capri, the question of curd is not even raised. There is not even the pretence toward curd. There is only string. And on string a poutine cannot hang. So, I have to argue that this dish has been mislabeled on the menu. In my opinion it can only be rightly called : gravy-covered, fried fries au gratin.

Blend: Proportions of fry to curd to sauce are difficult to calculate given the total absence of one of the three ingredients. I suppose it's possible that if there'd been more critical curd mass, there would have been a better overall balance. But, as it stands now, the sauce has been put in the position of greatly overcompensating for absence of substance.


Wednesday, December 25, 2013

A Festive (and French Fry) Free Pass

In her latest newsletter, RoseAnna Schick of RAS Creative posits that throughout the rest of the year, we self-starters are tethered to the creative, moral, financial (not necessarily in that order) imperative of keeping up with our work work or our art work or both. 

But come the Christmas tide, there's also holiday work that muscles its way into the top'ish position on our To Do list - giving us a split imperative to juggle. According to RoseAnna, this is cool. 

Go ahead and do the holiday work first, she says. It's only here for a short time and that other work will be right there where you left it after the holidays. Not only that, but you'll get that same sense of accomplishment from your holiday work well done - plus get to raise a glass or two as part of the job. 

So, taking a cue from Miss Schick, I'm off for a holiday week or so to do some fizzy work. In other words, for the holidays, my poutine routine will be usurped by lots of slurping - of oysters, wine and all manner of other good things not requiring much effort to imbibe - and I'll be back at my more disciplined routine of regular sidestepping after the New Year. 


Wednesday, December 18, 2013

In Pursuit of Perfect Poutine Post 1

In an ongoing quest to kickstart and nourish the writing of my second feature film, A Nutshell of Infinite Space, I have created a kind of reverse psychology methodology called The Screenplay Side Project. Loosely based on Archimedes making an important breakthrough in his problem-solving by taking a bath, The SSP dictates I regularly step back from my immediate goal and go "off-road", allowing my writing to find its own way for a while. 

For now my productive distraction is the pursuit of the ultimate poutine experience, tasting and reviewing poutines and the respective joints they come from around town. 

This, then, is my first:

Poutine Laurier (2100 Laurier Av E, Montréal)
Poutine régulière - $5.95

Has just the right refried, deep fried smell. Not overpowering when you walk in, but that acrid sweet scent clings faintly to your clothes long after you walk out. There's the regulation "Bienvenue Welcome" paper place mats, good mix of booth and freestanding tables, big tall plastic water glasses refilled often, big screen t.v. that you can ignore if you're not into Quebec télé-romans, big jars of those red pickled peppers favoured by your better poutine establishments for decoration only as far as I can tell, good view windows to Laurier and de Lorimier, but furnishings are merely recreations of the old melamine, and upholstery reflects the 90's spirit of charcoal, pink and teal. 

One Waitress - bottled blonde, middle aged, full souche québécoise, Ambience: good, balanced blend of her throaty joual and contemporary top 40 music

Very "neighbourhood in transition".
From very young couple with baby, to old lady who is well-known, well-greeted - tiens! la visite - and well-treated by long-suffering waitress lending half an ear to lady's litany of complaints about some ill-fated supper invitation and les gens qui savent pas vivre and how tired she was because, j'ai fait tout mon lavage aujourd'hui, chus fatiquée, tout mon lavage, et changer mon litte avec. Other young guys from the neighbourhood came in to take out.  A single father and his one week on, one week off son who splurging on Combo #3 with liqueur - only the kid had to tell his dad he's staying away from sugar these days. Another middle-aged man who, upon coming in, greeted the old lady like a friend, but sat alone. All French. All the time.

Portion: Moyenne. Served in a flat soup bowl style plate. Not shockingly little. Not generously lots. Just moyenne.

French fried potatoes: The corporate kind. Long, stiff, golden, dry - inside and out. Light density. Middling to littling flavour, one stand-out fry gave off essence of real potato (but to be fair, that was before I stirred it all up so that the fries were all pretty much coated in the 

Sauce: Of the tangy, barbecuey variety. Orangey brown. Slightly translucid. A chemical as opposed to a comforting finish.

Curds: I cannot hide behind any pretence of objectivity on the curd question. This, even more than the sauce, or the fry is the hinge on which hangs the pleasure (or not) of poutine. In the case of Poutine Laurier, the curd is the right colour, there's enough of them, they have the appearance of being of pure race

But where's the squeak?? 

There's no bounce - no fight in the bite. These curds just lay down and let you walk all over them. They go soft. and melt like little girls' lunch box mozzarella. 
Blend: Perfect proportion of fry to sauce to curd. Unfortunately, nothing could stand up to the sauce. Its flavour smothered the others. 

For next week, I have my eye on Plan de Match, a tavern-y type joint on Bélanger just off Pie-IX. Stay tuned...