Editor's note: This column is simulcast on our sister blog, CanadianCrossing.com, given the shared commonality of food and Canada that is poutine.
The idea of celebrating one of Canada's better-known foods in the 3rd largest city in the United States sounded magical to me when I first heard about the event. In the end, the experience left me pining for a road trip to Montréal.
Previous coverage: Poutine in Montreal: Sampling through the city's finest
In a room full of "poutines," only one came close to be remotely similar to what you might find in Quebec. And that version isn't something the restaurant is offering.
In some circles, poutine has become the whim of high and mighty variations to the classic fries, cheese, and gravy combination. This approach to poutine was on display on Sunday.
The most authentic was from El Ideas with the basic ingredients topped with a smoked duck sausage and foie gras gravy. You could easily see that on a menu in Montréal. (Sorry I didn't get a picture.)
This is a place with a constantly changing menu, and the Web site doesn't show any poutine has been served at the restaurant. Too bad.
Some of the places offered up a poutine that either wasn't on their current menu or had never been on its menu.
The least authentic was from the Pleasantry. The place went with smoked onion, blue cheese, and thyme gravy with duck confit, crispy onions, and scallions. Most of that subtlety was lost in the blue cheese sauce, and I love blue cheese. I couldn't pick out any other taste.
The Publican, a renown place in Chicago, offered up fried chickentail, fried cheese curds (really?), hot sauce, and Dunbarton blue cheese. The actual taste was not as good as the ingredients would suggest. This didn't even belong at a poutine competition.
Haymarket, the host of the event, submitted its own approach with smoked ham hock gravy that was topped with in-house andouille sausage and lemon soaked apples. A nice dish, but poutine was the furthest thing when eating this.
The Boarding House had a lobster poutine. I told the guy I couldn't possibly compare it to the other lobster poutine I had — Chuck Hughes' Garde Manger lobster poutine. Hughes' version was a lot better. The guy went through a long description of what goes into the lobster presentation, but the dish was more about lobster pieces on top of French fries. I don't even remember either the cheese or if there was a sauce in this dish.
Scofflaw had a bacon, eggs, and clam topping. This could have been a carbonara poutine, which doesn't sound that bad. This dish was okay, but admittedly I only had one bite.
Little Market went with braised short ribs, a nice choice if you going in that direction, and red wine gravy, but with fried cheese curds. Sigh.
Leopold went with a lamb marquez gravy and pickled peppers on top of fries and cheese curds. A lot of strong flavors, but nothing resembling poutine.
The judges went with the Gage, a place that knowingly offers different versions of the dish that changes as the menu changes. The Gage version had wild boar on top with smoked celery, carrots, and onions. Wild boar is good, but the cheese was barely noticeable. I'll admit this is the only poutine in the room I had before the fest, so I knew it pretty well.
I didn't get to try two of them. Red Door had a duck confit with chorizo verde and pickled jalapeno. And the Pleasant House served what it called deluxe gravy chips. British chips (square fried potatoes) topped with hangar steak, red wine gravy, and shredded cheddar. Both sounded good, but not authentic. And kudos to the Pleasant House for not calling it poutine.
I met Canadians, people who like Canada, and others who just wanted to eat. One guy had a Habs jersey, another had an old school Expos hat. I might have broken out my Montréal gear if I weren't on duty. One woman had a Jonathan Toews shirt; I asked her if she wore the shirt on purpose. She had no idea what I was talking about. I explained to her that Toews was Canadian (from Manitoba).
I met a young woman from Canada had been in the States for 10 years; she had lived in Toronto and Vancouver. She explained to me that poutine was continuing the stereotype about Canada about eating fatty foods, even if it was true but not what we should think about when we think of Canada.
I wanted to find people who had never had poutine. One described her impresion before as poutine being gravy fries. After having had poutine, she thought it was a vehicle for gravy and cheese. Another person thought it was better than she thought it would be, and had heard about poutine when the Bad Happy Poutine Shop opened up about a couple of years ago.
Yes, Chicago has a place devoted to poutine. The place tries hard to be truly authentic, but I and several other "experts" feel the place comes up a little short. But you can get fries, cheese curds, and gravy there along with other variations.
Poutine is a food of the masses: simple food for cheap prices and eaten to keep warm in the cold Quebec winters. The poutine I've seen in Chicago is mostly about hoity-toity variations for expensive prices: the exact opposite of what poutine is in Montréal.
I've had paid about $6 for a wonderful plate of poutine that fills my stomach and fulfills my taste buds in Montréal. I have paid almost double that for plates that didn't fill or fulfill.
The money went to charity, about $8000 to Common Threads, which does a number of cool things, including teaching about cultural diversity through cooking. I'd like to think poutine, real poutine, can play a part in cultural diversity.
All pictures taken by me with all the proper copyrights.