The North Country flaunts its French-Canadian roots with this Quebecois comfort food
by Niki Kourofsky
During the 2000 presidential election, Canadian comedian Rick Mercer, posing as a reporter, asked Governor Bush what he thought about “Prime Minister Jean Poutine” endorsing his run. Since the fake name didn’t raise any red ﬂags with the candidate—he jumped seamlessly into his talking points—we can only assume George W. had never known the pleasure of gravy-drowned cheese curds melting into a heaping plate of homemade fries.
It’s hard to blame Bush for his faux pas. Not many people outside the maple-syrup belt have heard of the Quebecois delicacy. The stuff got its start to the northeast of Montreal in the mid-20th century. There’s some argument about who created what in which greasy spoon, but the dish’s inception basically simmers down to: “Hey, you put your cheese curds in my gravy fries” and “Hey, you put your gravy fries on my cheese curds.”
Those two great tastes that taste great together became poutine, French-Canadian slang most often translated as “pudding” or “mess.” A greasy, calorie-packed mess it may be, but it’s also frequently tagged by fans as Canada’s national dish. We like it plenty in the Adirondacks, too—maybe it’s not fences that make good neighbors, but the gut-warming gift of poutine.
Traditional poutine is a simple, low-brow affair: hand-cut fries are topped with briny white cheddar cheese curds, which are then melted by a ladleful of brown gravy. North-of-the-border poutine gravy—actually called “sauce” in the Motherland—is peppery, with hints of vinegar and sometimes tomato.
Down here in the North Country, where French-Canadian tradition runs as thick as our accents, the sloppy treat pops up in a lot of diners (though the farther you stray from the northern end of the park, the more likely a poutine request will get a blank stare). Adirondackers don’t seem as particular about how our fries are sauced—chances are you’ll ﬁnd the same gravy topping your deep-fried potatoes as gracing your mashed. And, since squeaking-fresh cheese curds can be harder to come by in these parts, mozzarella is a popular substitution.
Most residents can overlook these differences, preferring a peaceful exchange of poutine among nations, but there are purists. Christine Campeau, educator for Blue Mountain Lake’s Adirondack Museum, grew up in Chateaugay and remembers family trips to Pivin’s, a famous roadside poutine destination just across the Canadian border. After the joy of their grease-and-gravy-soaked cardboard boxes of cheesy love, Campeau just can’t abide joints swapping wimpy shredded cheese for big tasty curds. She takes her business to the Indian Lake Restaurant, where they rock their poutine old school with fresh cheddar curds made daily in Woodhull, New York.
Although the North Country doesn’t have anything like the famous foie gras poutine dreamed up by Martin Picard at Montreal’s Au Pied de Cochon, we do have a chef or two experimenting with the art form. Tim Loomis, of Lake Placid’s Liquids and Solids at the Handlebar, offers a new take on poutine gravy every night. His nontraditional sauces have included white bean, crispy octopus, sloppy joe and hot dog versions. On the other side of town, the Interlaken Inn’s Kevin Dunford serves his french fries and curds layered in a rich porcini gravy packed with roasted pulled pork. Over in Saranac Lake John Vargo, of Eat ’n Meet Grill and Larder, crafts his gravy from a slow-simmered, slow-smoked corned beef brisket. The stock is seasoned with a concentrated mushroom soy sauce, black pepper and a touch of ketchup. Vargo pours that over hand-cut fries and white cheddar cheese curds. “We get a lot of compliments on our version,” he says, “many from Canadians who say ours is the most authentic they have found south of the border.”
Saranac Lake may be in the running for the most authentic poutine, but Tupper Lake—a place with enough Canadian cred to stand in for a Quebec village in the new Paul Giamatti movie All is Bright—may have the most servings per capita. One of the many Tupper Lake eateries that dishes out the popular comfort food is Reandeau’s Swiss Kitchen, on Park Street. They keep it simple—just no-frills fries, cheese and gravy—and it keeps folks coming back.
Bima’s Pizzeria & Deli 291 Park Street, Tupper Lake (518) 359-2992
Eat ’n Meet Grill and Larder 139 Broadway, Saranac Lake (518) 891-3149 www.eatnmeet.com
Foote’s Port Henry Diner 5 St. Patrick’s Place, Port Henry (518) 546-7600
Indian Lake Restaurant 2 West Main Street, Indian Lake (518) 648-5115
The Interlaken Inn 39 Interlaken Avenue, Lake Placid (518) 523-3180 theinterlakeninn.com
Liquids and Solids at the Handlebar 6115 Sentinel Road, Lake Placid (518) 837-5012 www.liquidsandsolids.com
Maggie’s Pub at Lake Placid Lodge 144 Lodge Way, Lake Placid (518) 523-2700 www.lakeplacidlodge.com
Main Street Restaurant 79 Main Street, Tupper Lake (518) 359-7449 Rustique Restaurant 3223 Route 3, Saranac (518) 293-8416
The Swiss Kitchen 92 Park Street, Tupper Lake (518) 359-3513
White Birch Cafe 218 Park Street, Tupper Lake (518) 359-8044