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If you crave Quebecois comfort, it's poutine

Kathleen Marceau of Quebec City savors the poutine at Chez Ashton. Kathleen Marceau of Quebec City savors the poutine at Chez Ashton. (PATRICIA HARRIS FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE)
By Patricia Harris and David Lyon
Globe Correspondents / May 4, 2008

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QUEBEC CITY - If Quebec were a country, poutine (poo-TEEN) would be its national food. The dish of deep-fried potatoes sprinkled with fresh cheese curds and doused in brown gravy might not sound appealing to the uninitiated (or the English-speaking), but for Quebecers, it is the ultimate comfort food. Its curative properties know no bounds. After a long night of drinking, dancing, and club-hopping, nothing settles the stomach like poutine.

That's not to say that it can't be enjoyed around the clock. On a rainy day last summer, we ducked into Chez Ashton on Grande-Allée around noon and found more than a dozen people already lined up at the counter to place their poutine orders. Ashton may not have invented the dish any more than the McDonald brothers or Ray Kroc invented the hamburger, but it has perfected the art of serving it to the masses. We placed our orders and in no time the counter staff had assembled two piping hot dishes of poutine in deep-sided foil containers.

We grabbed a table among the regulars, including Frederic Lamonde, who had mastered the skill of reading the newspaper without spilling a drop of sauce on his suit and tie. "I eat here once a month," he said when he noticed us admiring his form. "Even people from Montreal are anxious to eat here. It's the best poutine."

One of the most widely accepted stories dates the origin of poutine to a restaurant in the town of Warwick, northeast of Montreal, in 1957. Ashton, which began as a french-fry truck on rue Hamel in Quebec in 1969, started serving poutine three years later. By 1976, owner Ashton Lalonde had launched his first restaurant. Now Chez Ashton is a 25-restaurant chain found all over the province. All thanks to poutine.

The French-Canadian love affair with the dish even inspired a book, "Maudite poutine!" (which translates loosely as "Damn mess!"), published last year to mark poutine's 50th anniversary. Charles-Alexandre Théorêt, the book's author, told the CanWest News Service, "It's a popular working-class meal that looks disgusting and that is not fancy. It's even a bit trashy."

We could only assume that the diners at Chez Ashton hadn't read Théorêt's book as they dug into their poutine while discussing some of the dish's finer points. "You really have to get the right cheese curds," said Nancy Byrtus, who was lunching with her two children, Maya and Sabine Zandstra, establishing their love of poutine at a young age. "It's best if the cheese is really gooey."

Maud Cantin was chowing down with two friends. "Start from the base and work your way up," she advised as we sat with our plastic forks poised above the oozy concoction, unsure how to deconstruct our poutine before it congealed. We each poked at it, licked a little of the salty brown gravy off our forks, and finally speared some fries where bits of cheese clung to the sauce.

To the novice, poutine is a revelation on a par with discovering apple pie topped with cheddar cheese. Poutine, we discovered, is also greater than the sum of its parts, a dish where crisp fried potatoes, chewy cheese, and creamy sauce combine in a gourmand gestalt.

In other words, we liked it.

Cantin clearly approved our choice of the classic trinity of potato, cheese, and gravy. "I'm a traditionalist," she said, eschewing fancy new sauces or additions of meat or vegetables. Tablemate Johanne Boucher, however, had opted for a spicy gravy and sausage variation. "The sausage is hard to resist," she said.

Poutine has, in fact, proven infinitely adaptable, which could be the secret of its staying power. Chez Ashton sells poutine with sliced hot dogs, sliced sausage, chicken and peas, traditional brown gravy, a mildly hot barbecue sauce . . .

Poutine has even crossed over into fine dining. In 2005, Christian Veilleux opened Versa, a stylish restaurant in the newly discovered neighborhood of St-Roch at the foot of Quebec's ancient fortifications below the cliffs of the Côte d'Abraham. It is a chic gathering spot where beautiful people sit at a backlighted bar eating Îles-de-la-Madeleine oysters and washing them down with gleaming silver martinis. Yet there on the menu, right after the goat cheese with white wine and roasted pine nuts, and the deep-fried squid with caper and pickle mayonnaise, is the humble poutine. But it is not just any poutine. This one features Yukon gold potatoes, shredded duck confit, raw milk cheese, and duck glaze. Chef Eric Boutin even plays around with the occasional poutine special, such as poutine with spiced lamb shank, glazed in a lamb reduction.

"We like to do real French-Canadian food," Veilleux said, "but always with a twist." Poutine stays on the menu because, he said, "You look around and there's always a poutine on every table."

We'll lift a plastic fork to that.

Patricia Harris and David Lyon, freelance writers based in Cambridge, can be reached at harris.lyon@verizon.net.