One of our favorite things to do when visiting places by boat is to sample some of the local specialties.
For example, while in Nanaimo, B.C. last summer, we tried several versions the Nanaimo bar, a three-tiered confection with a cookie crumb base topped by layers of custard and chocolate.
After tying up on a dock at the Inner Harbour in Victoria a couple of weeks ago, Marty and I went on a quest for that most revered of Canadian fast foods, poutine. Canada’s answer to the nacho, poutine is an unholy trifecta of French fries topped with gravy and white cheese curds. It’s a dietary disaster and when prepared right, absolutely delicious.
I first tried this diabolical dish originating from Quebec as a university student in Toronto. Since then, poutine has migrated to the west coast and can now be readily found in many cities, including Victoria.
Poutine (correctly pronounced poo-TIN, not poo-TEEN) has shown up on menus at a surprisingly large number of Victoria restaurants, even the venerable Empress Hotel’s Bengal Lounge.
Marty and I sampled the dish at several eateries within walking distance of the Inner Harbour with the goal of providing you, dear readers, with a starting point for your own poutine tour of Victoria, selflessly clogging our arteries so you don’t have to.
Victoria restaurants turn out poutine in countless variations. There are even vegan versions with miso gravy and soy cheese. Others come topped with smoked meats, pulled pork, bacon, even fish. At the Bengal Lounge, butter chicken sauce is slathered on the fries. Purists might not consider the meaty interpretations real poutine, and since I’m not much of a meat eater, we stuck to the more classic, meatless versions.
The notion of brown gravy on fries is anathema to many Americans (ranch dressing, seriously?!?), but I’m not sure why. It works on mashed potatoes, and the addition of cheese and deep-frying can only add to the tastiness.
The gravy on poutine can be homemade or from a mix, meat-based or vegetarian. Poutine aficionados seem to be fine with different approaches to the gravy, perhaps because it’s unclear what sort of sauce was originally poured over the fries (an interesting history of poutine can be read here).
But one thing poutine lovers universally agree upon is the cheese. Real poutine is made with squeaky, fresh white cheddar cheese curds. Not chunks of mozzarella, and certainly not orange cheddar or any form of grated cheese.
Tasting the goods
Our first stop was Garrick’s Head Pub (1140 Government St. Ph: 250.384.6835), which has been open since 1867 and bills itself as of the oldest English pubs in Canada. It’s also nicely untouristy, with a crowd that looked to be made up mostly of locals.
Its poutine ($9.50) came in a heaping bowlful that was generous even for two people. The beer-battered fries were crispy, hot and excellent. The beef gravy was dark and rich, deliciously reminiscent of Sunday pot-roast dinners at my granny’s house — so I was surprised to learn it was from a mix.
There was an adequate amount of cheese, though a little less than I like on poutine, and it was melted beyond the point of remaining in curd form. All in all, though, it was satisfying and extremely filling, making me glad we had at least a short walk back to the marina.
Too full for round number two, we saved our next stop for the following night and headed over to Smiths Bar & Restaurant (777 Courtney St., 250.360.2544). The bartender informed us that their poutine ($8) came with either regular or Madras curry gravy. We went for the curry, since that’s how it’s normally served.
The gravy was delicious, lighter in color and texture, not overly spicy but with a pleasing amount of curry. It’s made in-house, the bartender said, and is vegetarian.
The fries came topped with sliced green onions, a nice addition. The portion size was enough for two but not excessive – a good thing, since it’s virtually impossible for me to leave poutine uneaten unless it’s truly terrible.
In this case, the fries were okay but nothing special, and the texture of the cheese seemed suspiciously more like mozzarella than cheese curds. That didn’t stop us from quickly devouring it.
A side note about Smiths: it’s a dark wood-filled, candlelit English style pub that plays an excellent assortment of British post-punk music, the type those of us who came of age in the 1980s might remember. It would be a cozy spot to play cribbage on a rainy winter night and if we lived in Victoria, would no doubt become a favorite haunt.
Poutine was followed by an excellent dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant after which, stuffed, we called it a night.
By the next day, the last of our visit, my body was demanding salad and threatening a revolt. But there was still more poutine on the agenda. After a cocktail at the splendidly fancypants Bengal Lounge, whose fragrant nightly curry buffet nearly deterred us from our mission, we walked around the Inner Harbour to the Flying Otter Grill, located in the Harbour Air floatplane terminal.
The pub’s poutine ($8) looked exactly as good poutine should, with a generous helping of cheese curds mixed in among the fries and just the right amount of gravy, which we were told was vegan. The Flying Otter normally serves its poutine topped with green onion and bacon bits, but wanting to stick to a more traditional presentation, we asked for the bacon on the side.
The bartender didn’t know where the curds came from, which was too bad; I put the Flying Otter on our poutine list after reading that the owner imported the curds fresh from Montreal. I was hoping for some fresh, authentically French-Canadian curds.
And sadly, the curds were where things fell flat. They were on the cold side, ruining their potential to be the star of the dish. The fries were also disappointing, somewhat limp and not hot enough. With a couple of easy but critical tweaks, the Flying Otter’s poutine could be outstanding.
The verdict: of the three poutines we liked the Garrick Head’s the best for its crisp, excellent fries and delicious gravy. Though not as traditional, the Smiths’ poutine was deemed a close second, its curry gravy providing an interesting and tasty twist.
But we barely scratched the surface of Victoria’s poutine possibilities. The dish is available at several fast food outlets in the city, including A&W and New York Fries, as well as numerous other restaurants and pubs — giving us another reason to plan a return trip to Victoria.
In the meantime I’ll be at the gym, working off all that fat and carbs.