Sunday, February 13, 2011

Poutine Is For Lovers

Valentine’s Day has always been about simple pleasures for Margot and I. We met as college kids with very little money and had to be creative to celebrate. After we got married, although we found increasing success in our jobs, we still retained simplicity for Valentine’s Day. No big trips away, no crazy-expensive restaurants. Simple gifts, flowers and often homemade food.

This year we did go out, but we did so in search of a classic only locally available on the West Side of Manchester, NH. Poutine. For those that don’t know of it, and you are excused as it a French-Canadian creation, it is composed of French fries, cheese curds and gravy.

Chez Vachon is situated on Kelley Street on Manchester’s west side. This is a neighborhood that has been called “Little Canada.” The neighborhood was established by immigrants from Quebec that were recruited to work in the mills along the Merrimack River that bisects the city. Margot comes from French-Canadian heritage and her family were long time residents of Manchester, although on east of the river. Margot’s uncle lives on Montreal, whom we visit on our annual (or more) trips to the city. Poutine is familiar to us as you can imagine.

Chez Vachon is a small place styled like a typical diner that is only open for breakfast and lunch. The service was quick and attentive and the restaurant was clean. They offer a dense menu of breakfast and lunch foods, all of which are available throughout their open hours. We told our server that “we came for one thing”, to which we got a knowing smile in response.

We asked our server what people considered traditional or classic Poutine, something we were especially interested in because of our past musings about the type of gravy used. A peppery chicken gravy is considered the classic topper for the fries and cheese curds. This makes sense because the best examples of this dish we have had, in Montreal of course, had a gravy that we didn’t think was beef when considering the milder flavor. The dark color of those gravies left us puzzled though. We ordered a classic and also one made with bacon and beef gravy. You can also order it with vegetables and all manner of meats on it and you have a third option for sauce, spaghetti sauce. Neither Margot or I understand that option but our waitress indicated the shop owner likes it that way. We’ll trust that judgment, but we passed on the taste just the same!

While we waited we noticed the wall of fame (or shame I guess for the losers) for the Grand Poutine Challenge. This challenge was debuted in October of 2010 and has seen a handful of entrants. The challenge is to eat 5 pounds of classic Poutine in 1 hour with no bathroom breaks. There are two photos hanging for folks that have finished it successfully and quite a few more who have raised the white flag short of 5 pound goal. I am not a competitive eater so you won’t see a blog entry from me taking on this challenge! Our server was gracious enough to let us take a photo of the back of her t-shirt that advertises the challenge. Thanks Christine!

Both of our plates of Poutine arrived with steam coming off of them. Margot bristled at the idea I was going to make her wait even 1 second to snap a few photos. Patience, grasshopper!

The classic had light to medium brown colored gravy poured over top a generous helping of cheese curds and crispy French fries. The aromas emanating from the dish reminded us of what we came for.

The cheese curds were soft and chewy, and the gravy is peppery but not spicy. The gravy has a hearty chicken flavor, well now that we know it’s chicken, that would work well in a lot of ways. The gravy wasn’t overly salty which we found to be a delightful surprise. The fries were cooked very well retaining a nice crispy outside with soft potato inside, and no grease. We were offered some white vinegar that is used by many people as a garnish. We both tried it and found the acidity from vinegar amped up the flavors in the whole dish. Pretty smart!

The bacon & beef gravy version was something we wanted to try to cement the difference in the gravy but also to add meat to mix. We found the gravy only slightly saltier, thumbs up, and having a much richer flavor as we would have expected. The fries and cheese curds were as we found them in classic. The bacon pulled this dish together. The bacon they serve at Chez Vachon is meaty with a huge smoky flavor that really mixed well with the cheese, fries and gravy. That said, the classic is still what you crave when you crave Poutine and will always be my favorite.

Margot had a great quote to sum up our Chez Vachon Poutine experience. “It is a perfect example of taking something simple and doing it really well.”

We finished up our Valentine’s Day celebration with a trip to the Currier Art Museum, also located in Manchester. Margot and I had been their together quite a number of years ago, but not since they had re-opened after a major renovation. Margot visited in 2010 as part of leadership program and raved about how much nicer it was and how much larger their collection could be. I’ll leave you with a favorite work from each of us.

( Allen B. Hall, Remember When , 2011 )

The piece above was part of the New Hampshire Art Association’s 62nd Currier Exhibition, the current special collection on display at the Currier.

( Claude Monet, The Seine at Bougival, 1869 )

I have always been a fan on Monet and outdoor scenes. Thinking about my upcoming trip to France was easy looking at this.

Margot and I hope you enjoy your Valentine’s Day in your own special way this year.




Kimmy Bingham said...

Dave and I are also "poutine enthusiasts". We will be indulging that next week in Montreal, but good to know that someone around these parts can offer up a traditional poutine!

Brian Samuels Photography said...

Oh i would definitely agree that Poutine are for lovers... is there a more romantic way to spend Valentine's Day than with a big plate of these messy treats.

Kate @ said...

So I've had fries with cheese, but I've never had poutine - I feel left out! It sounds like a seriously delicious dish - Happy Valentine's Day to you both!

Meghan@travelwinedine said...

What a fun way to spend a Valentine's date! I love poutine and Montreal.

BrewEngland said...

It's sad...I lived in Hooksett and Manchester for 22 years and NEVER went to Chez Vachon, though I knew how great the food was. I'm a big fan of Poutine and have only had a good plate of it in Montreal. I'll have to make a special stop on le Ouest Side soon!

Tastemonials said...

I have never heard of poutine - it sounds quite intriguing. If I'm ever in that vicinity again, I'll have to remember to try it.

Anna's Table said...

As a true Montrealer,I just couldn't resist checking out your post on poutine. It looks like you were served the real deal, but for a real over the top version, Le Pied du Couchon restaurant serves a high end version with foie gras. Not for the faint of heart!