Los Angeles (Westwood), California
I admit up front that I can come across sounding like a broken record decrying the aberration that is passed off as poutine in Southern California, truly a slap in the face to foreign policy with our neighbor to the north. Having been a guest in the City of Angels for close to ten years, I have found one cafe making authentic poutine classique and a gourmet food truck that vends a decent traditional poutine, but options for finding a decent tribute to the sloppy drunk food from Canada have been scarce at best. Enter P’tit Soleil, a poutinerie attached to Executive Chef and owner Luc Alarie’s Soleil Westwood (a haven for Canadian expatriates and Angelenos looking for legitimate Québécois cuisine). In addition to approximately a dozen varieties of poutine, P’tit Soleil offers a full menu of traditional French Canadian dishes as well as Canadian-inspired cocktails and imported beer.
Although small, the brick-lined bistro is sparsely furnished with thick wooden tables and aluminum chairs that open the room up; the space itself aptly resembles a Montréal poutinerie, and although each table is topped with a tiny Québec flag and the walls feature simple art with Canadian symbolism the hint really isn’t necessary. A blue laminated pamphlet stands proudly atop each table, sporting the title, “The Perfect Bite”; consider this your Field Guide for identifying the wild poutine. Although Chef Alarie has whimsically christened the poutines on the menu with the names of friends, family and acquaintances, most equate to a traditional poutine – for instance, the Poutine Simon Chen is Alaire’s version of the Italian poutine; the simple, basic poutine classique has been dubbed “Poutine Mario”. P’tit Soleil also has poutine Galvaude and poutine Dulton, but half the fun is poring through “The Perfect Bite” to determine which menu items these equate to.
Before we sample the copious Québécois delights, let’s get down to brass tacks and hold a candle up to the dish that levels the playing field, the poutine classique (how’s that for a mouthful of clichés?). We’ll work our way from the bottom up, starting with the ubiquitous French fries. P’tit Soleil’s fries are thinner than your average fast food variety (which, after all, is the standard); the benefit is that they crisp up when fried to a golden brown, resisting the temptation to go all soggy on your ass. The cheese curds are flown in weekly, and unfortunately the time lag results in a fromage lump that lacks the serious teeth-squeak of freshly-made Québécois fromage; the curds maintain their flavor and still have some spring in their step, still a cut above the melted cheese pawned off as a legitimate topping in high-end Los Angeles eateries. The brown gravy is better than authentic – while most poutine in Québec is doused with sauce from a dry mix, Chef Alaire makes his from scratch, adding another dimension to the flavor of the dish. For authenticity and flavor, P’tit Soleil’s squeaks by with an A-, with points shaved for the curds.
In addition to several of the outstanding poutines, I also sampled some of the other small dishes on the menu. The Roule de Choux (a veal and pork crispy egg roll with a mirepoix base) maintained the perfect balance of salty and sweet (with the accompaniment of a fresh plum sauce). The cylinder crumbled to the tooth and seemed to be represent something between lumpia and fried ravioli. A simple Crevettes Heather presented a phalanx of tiger shrimp standing at attention and bathed in a spicy cognac cream sauce; the crustaceans were still firm and had a vibrant and fiery flavor, a few degrees lower on the Scoville scale from Camarónes a La Diabla. Of special note was the Gâteau au Canard, a take on the familiar Maryland crab cake that substitutes duck for the crab. The texture was like a firm mashed potato (think Cuban potato balls or croquettes) with the duck reduced down to lacking muscle fiber and the cognac peppercorn and raspberry sauces on the side adding complexity to the taste. As if that wasn’t enough, I knocked back a traditional tourtière that was stocked with ground meat and featured a thick, flaky crust that tastes like the best meat knish you ever ate in your life.
In the event you’ve saved room for dessert, a must-try item is listed as “Les P’tit gâteaux Vachon faits à ma façon” – essentially, Chef Alaire’s take on the mass-produced pastries marketed by Vachon in Québec that takes him back to his childhood (the Canadian equivalent of Tastykakes, Hostess or Drake’s bakery items). Imagine the difficulty of trying to reproduce the almost waxy consistency of a Ding Dong’s chocolate skin using fresh ingredients while maintaining flavor and authenticity. Alaire hits it out of the park with three homages: “Ah! Caramel!” (a chocolate-glazed cake with a marshmallow and caramel heart); Jos Louis (the Ring Ding/Ding Dong tribute); and, May West (a custard-filled yellow cake with a chocolate shell). The pastries accurately represent their Vachon equivalents, but are somehow too decadent to be wasted on children.
You can put lipstick on a pig and call it Monique, but it is still a pig – such is the case with French fries topped with cheese and some sort of sauce being palmed off as poutine. With the opening of P’tit Soleil, it will soon be harder to deceive the uninitiated poutine consumer in the Los Angeles area; now, would someone here be kind enough to open a sugar shack?
NOTE: This cost for this meal was provided by the restaurant. The content provided in this article was not influenced whatsoever by the organizer of the event.