Where to Find Poutine in NH
We're not just talking about traditional poutine. Our intrepid Cuisine Editor went on the hunt for the perfect marriage of fries, gravy and squeaky fromage.
The combination of French fries, cheese curds and gravy may sound disgusting if you have never tried it, but, seriously, this mélange of possibly the world’s most unhealthy foods is nothing short of sublime and the best remedy for a hangover.
Poutine, any way you say it, is the ultimate comfort food and a vital contribution to said food category from French-Canadians — a legacy from the thousands who migrated to New England to work in textile factories. By 1900, 60 percent of the textile workers in New Hampshire were French-Canadian, according to the Manchester Historic Association. The west side of Manchester, close to the mills, remains a French-Canadian population center, and Chez Vachon on Kelley Street is often hailed as the mecca for poutine-ophiles.
Some say poo-teen, but poo-ten or pootzin is more correct. Most servers at casual restaurants are not judgmental and will know what you are asking for without correcting your attempt. Myself, I can’t stop saying putin, as in Vladimir.
The word itself does not have a clear etymology. Merriam-Webster suggests it’s a Québécois slang word for “mess.” Others suggest a possible relationship to poutingo or "bad stew”; poutité, “hodgepodge”; or poutringo, a “mixture of various things” in Languedocien dialect. Maybe that’s it — stewy hodgepodge of various things.
Regardless, I waded deep into the stuff to see what the fuss was about with visits to several recommended local spots. Can New Hampshire compete with our northerly neighbors, the original source of the fountain of hot gravy and curd?
Heading to Québec you can find heavenly poutine at gas stations and even Canadian Mickey D’s. Executive Chef Matt Provencher of Martingale Wharf in Portsmouth says he and his wife went to Canada for a full poutine immersion trip about seven years ago: “We had about 15 versions, and none were alike.” Seems like a moving target if you are looking for authenticity.
But why is it difficult to find an excellent poutine? I am not asking for authentic; I am looking for the best iteration of each component combined in the most delightful way. In a perfect world, a perfect poutine would have tasty fries, squeaky cheese curds and a flavorful gravy. To start, the right cheese is important.
Cheese curds are created in the first step of cheese-making. They form when calcium chloride and rennet are added to heated whole milk. Once the curds are separated from the whey, they are drained, and in several hours the curds are firm and dry. The hallmark of fresh curds is their chewy texture, which “squeaks” against your teeth. They lose that characteristic after a few days, and freezing also destroys their squeaky nature. Frankly, they are pretty bland. It’s more about the squeak and the stringy character when melted. Some say Canadian cheese is important, but with freshness so vital, sourcing locally makes the most sense.
The brown gravy is key and is probably the largest stumbling block to perfection. It should taste of a chicken stock and be thin enough to filter down to the fries. Recipes for the gravy often cite canned chicken with canned beef broth to darken it, but really? I would think gravy made with homemade stock would be best. Combine those three elements and, oh là là, the sum is greater than the parts.
Chef Provencher takes his gravy seriously. It’s a veal demi-glace with chicken “jelly” from wing bones and a dash of cream. He says, “I am known for rich foods, so why not take this over the top too?” How can an “authentic” gravy made from a Canadian dry mix compete with that?
Over at New England’s Tap House Grille in Hooksett, owner Dan Lagueux admits people complain that his poutine is not the “real thing” and he should visit Canada. He says, “I let them know that I came from Québec only 12 years ago and I’m trying to up the ante. I think my poutine is better than what you find in Québec.” Indeed, his gravy is a sherry peppercorn demi-glace. He uses more than a gallon of sherry every week for the gravy stock.
Of course, the fries need to be tasty and crispy. A thick, double-fried organic potato, properly seasoned, would be the holy grail. This seemingly simple food is also difficult for many to master. At New England’s Tap House Grille, the fries are tossed with Parmesan, salt and fresh rosemary for a heady perfume. Even crazier, the dish is given a spray of white truffle oil for a finish. Authentic, no. Excellent, yes.
In the end, it is more than all the right ingredients; it’s getting them together at the right temperature. The fries should be fresh and hot, the cheese just ready to melt and the gravy hot enough to act as the agent of change. Lagueux says, “We work hard to get some cheese melted and some unmelted. People complain when the cheese is not warm, but that is the only way to keep it squeaky.” The method of assembly is just another level of complication. No wonder it is hard to find perfection. Regardless, I enjoyed a variety of poutines even after a reheat at home. No squeak, but I couldn’t squawk about the flavor.
It used to be said that it was hard to find this classic dish outside of New England. After a Google search, I found California, Texas, Boston, Milwaukee and more regions having recent awakenings. Chicago even boasted a poutine fest. The world is paying due attention, maybe not with authentic recipes, but better yet, with wild enthusiasm for curds, fries and the gravy that binds. Just hope they pronounce it right.
Other Options to Explore
All Common Man diners — thecman.com
Gilley’s PM Lunch — Portsmouth
River Road Tavern — Bedford, as a special
Red Arrow Diners in Manchester and Milford — redarrowdiner.com
Grand Poutine Challenge
Really love poutine? At Chez Vachon in Manchester, eat five pounds of the dish in less than an hour and get honors, a T-shirt and the poutine free. Sound easy? Not so much. Of the 30 or so challengers, only five have succeeded.