March 15, 2010

CHEESE, FRIES & GRAVY

— t's just a simple dish on the pub menu at the Frog and Turtle in Westbrook, but it inspires some of the most passionate reviews from customers.

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20080818_PoutineDuckfat

Gordon Chibroski

20080818_PoutineDuckfat
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20080818_PoutineDuckfat

Gordon Chibroski

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When chef and owner James Tranchemontagne started serving poutine, customers began chatting him up by reminiscing about the way their mémère used to make it, or recalling that amazing version they had on a trip to Montreal.

''It's a fun one to sit down and talk to people about,'' Tranchemontagne said.

Poutine is classic French-Canadian comfort food, and it's showing up on Portland menus the way macaroni and cheese did a few years ago. Some versions adhere to the basics -- French fries and cheese curds smothered in brown gravy -- while others are gussied up a bit, like truffled mac-and-cheese, to suit more sophisticated tastes.

I talked with a couple of local chefs about their poutine, then -- for a ''professional'' opinion -- enlisted two co-workers of French-Canadian descent to taste-test three different versions.

First up in our Poutine Olympics: The home-style taters from Silly's on Washington Avenue go head-to-head with the hifalutin' fries from Duckfat.

Poutine is a regular entry on Silly's special board. According to the staff, they make it whenever there's enough drippings around to make the gravy. It's as ''down-home'' as you can get: Melted cheese covering thick-cut fries, all swimming in so much homemade gravy that Michael Phelps could probably manage to get another gold medal out of it. Price: $5.95.

Duckfat's version is the Nastia Liukin of poutine -- slender, elegant and striving for perfection. For $8.50, you get a bowl of the restaurant's famous Belgian fries cooked in you-know-what, topped with cheese curd from Smiling Hill Farm's Silvery Moon Creamery and served with two ounces of duck gravy.

Rob Evans, chef/owner of Hugo's and Duckfat, developed his own version of poutine a couple of years ago when customers began asking for it. It seemed like a natural addition to the menu, given the popularity of the restaurant's Belgian fries.

''We send our duck wings from Hugo's over to Duckfat'' to make the gravy, Evans said. ''Just traditional sauce. It's not a highly reduced sauce like Hugo's, meaning we use a little roux in there. Otherwise, we could never keep up with it. They go through gallons of that stuff. Also, being a roux-based sauce, it helps it cling'' to the fries.

My judges were Ray Routhier and Stephanie Bouchard, co-workers who spend way too much time discussing the merits of cretons, a pork spread that is a staple of Québécois cuisine. They can debate for hours whether turkey is an acceptable substitute for pork or an abomination to their cultural heritage.

Stephanie found the Duckfat poutine to be ''tastier,'' but added that the Silly's version ''looks more familiar.''

Both Stephanie and Ray thought the Silly's poutine seemed more like what they grew up eating at local diners and Franco festivals. Ray liked the fact that Silly's cheese and gravy were ''nice and gloppy.''

''It's supposed to be comfort food, so you need kind of a thick, gloppy gravy,'' he said. ''You need that gravy flavor. And you don't really get it with Duckfat.''

But be aware that Silly's homemade gravy, as good as it is, overpowers the rest of the dish, according to my tasters. Ray and Stephanie preferred the cheese and fries used in the Duckfat poutine, and felt that too much gravy would ruin it.

''If I wanted to have poutine, I would have this,'' Ray said, referring to the Silly's version. ''But (the Duckfat version) is delicious. The fries are insane. They're really good.''

Rob Evans said he goes lighter on the gravy for his poutine because he's concerned about making the Belgian fries too soggy.

''We put a lot of time into them,'' he said. ''I think even in Belgium now, they're doing the first fry as a boil in water, and we still do it the traditional way, which is poaching them in fat first and then refrying them again at a higher temperature. The extra work really pays off.''

Next up is the Frog and Turtle, where French-Canadian fare goes beyond a little poutine. James Tranchemontagne serves cretons as an accompaniment on his charcuterie plates. At brunch, there's a ''Franco-American Benedict'' that includes cretons, spinach and caramelized onion.

Tranchemontagne's poutine, which sells for $8, is made with a mixture of melted cheddar cheese and cheese curd from Silvery Moon Creamery. The secret to his gravy, which has a distinctive taste to it, is sage and a little Worcestershire sauce.

Ray liked Tranchemontagne's interpretation, but is philosophically opposed to having any kind of herb in his poutine. Stephanie was unavailable to taste this version.

Like Evans, Tranchemontagne said he believes in going lighter on the gravy.

''To me, it's a little bit better to have them wanting more, where they're squeegeeing their plate as opposed to having a half a cup of gravy still left on the plate,'' he said. ''There's the business side of it, too. You don't want people to eat this thing and then be so heavied down that they don't want their second course or dessert.''

On the other hand, according to Ray and Stephanie, it's not French-Canadian comfort food unless it feels like lead in your belly a half-hour later.

Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

mgoad@pressherald.com

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Additional Photos

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20080818_PoutineDuckfat
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20080818_PoutineDuckfat

Gordon Chibroski

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