There are many, many wonderful things with which our neighbor to the North has gifted us: Canadian bacon, the Anne of Green Gables series, Ryan Gosling, Michael J. Fox, peanut butter (apparently), Alex Trebec...
Oh, one more thing: Québéquois cuisine, specifically poutine, that most excellent combination of fries topped with gravy/sauce and cheese curds. I didn't even know that poutine existed until a few years ago, which is tragic.
Luc Alarie, proprietor of Westwood mainstay Soleil, seeks to avert that tragedy for others with the opening of P'tit Soleil. Right next door to its big sister on the corner of Westwood Boulevard and Wilkins Avenue, P’tit Soleil offers more than 10 variations on poutine, as well as a number of other small non-potato plates. As good as the food is, Alarie is an equal draw, displaying his considerable charm and obvious passion for food as he enthusiastically presents us with dishes from his home province.
The cozy poutine nook is one of the few in the neighborhood with a full bar, so we take advantage of it. We sample the uniquely tasty Dirty French Canadian (top, left), with Crown Royal, Grand Marnier, ginger ale and Angostura bitters. On the other hand, drinks like Canadian Shotgun (bottom, left) and the Montreal Mule put Canadian spins on some classics. P'tit Soleil also has a pretty impressive list of imported beers, many hailing from the land up north. You'll find a number of standbys from Unibroue (Maudite, La Fin du Monde, Blanche de Chambly), but also a few eye-openers, like the brews we try from Brasserie Dieu du Ciel (the Route des Épices, a rye brewed with black and green peppercorns, and the Corne du Diable, a contemporary interpretation of the English IPA, are both great). The beer and cocktail lists, combined with the televisions above the bar and the small plates menu, make it a great place to cheer on your favorite hockey (or curling?) team.
We can't help but dig deep into the small plates menu: the Roules De Choux, or French Canadian egg rolls, take traditional egg roll wrappers and stuff them with a juicy filling of pork, cabbage and veal, the saltiness of which is set off nicely by the accompanying sticky sweet plum sauce.
Next, small cakes of tender shredded duck pair well with a duo of raspberry and cognac peppercorn sauces.
A mini cocotte opens to reveal bouillabaisse, full of shrimp, scallops, clams and snapper swimming in an elegant saffron broth. And of course we top each spoonful with at least a dab of the creamy, heavenly rouille (a mayonnaise-like sauce).
We cut into the buttery crust of the tourtière, or French Canadian meat pie to inhale the clove-spiced pork and beef filling. The accompanying fruit chutney provides a nicely subtle sweetness.
And the poutine? Well, first, some background. While I always love gravy-and-cheese-curd-covered fries, almost every other version of poutine I’ve ever had has suffered from two fatal flaws – oversaucing and too-thick fries. The combination of these two things results in a dish where only the first 5 or 6 bites are great. Then the law of diminishing returns kicks in, and you’re left with a sopping heap of potato mush.
Not so here. The poutine at P’tit Soleil is built to prolong your enjoyment. The fries are truly shoestring-thin, and almost delicately crispy. Instead of melted cheese that weighs heavily on the potato foundation, here we have deliciously salty, warm nuggets of soft cheese curd. And while the sauces we sampled are all delicious, we were happy to see that they are ladled on the fries with restraint.
The Poutine Christine (below, right) is the simplest of the versions that hits our table, and is topped with a rich, spicy cognac peppercorn sauce. The Poutine Île-du-Prince-Édouard (below, left) comes with beautifully cooked, garlic-and-herb-laden little mussels, which add a briny flavor to the gravy. The shellfish is so good that I immediately vow (out loud) to return, just so I can order the mussels by themselves. The Poutine Malik (below, bottom), named after a gentleman sitting just down the bar from us, is the most unusual of the three versions we sampled, and maybe our favorite, adding slices of juicy merguez sausage and a spicy, creamy harissa sauce to the mix.
The meal ends with a platter of little desserts. There are a couple of more traditional desserts on display, and they are great: the crème brûlée, a silky sweet custard with a raspberry filling under a perfectly caramelized crust, and the feuilleté de fraise, a pretty sandwich of flaky puff pastry, Bavarian cream and strawberries, served over a fruit coulis. Then there are a trio of small chocolate-covered cakes created out of Alarie's nostalgia for childhood Québéquois treats: the Ah! Caramel!, with marshmallow and caramel fillings, the Joe Louis, a chocolate cream-filled cake, and the May West, a yellow cake with custard filling.
P'tit Soleil has already been open for a month, but today marks its Grand Opening. Come celebrate the gifts of Canada with some great Canadian beer, maybe one or two of the great Québéquois small plates, and of course, a heaping serving of the fantastic poutine.
*Disclosure: This was a hosted meal.