Springtime in Chicago, when we stash away our April thermal parkas for May peacoats, seems like the ideal time for poutine.
For the uninitiated of Quebec's most famous culinary export, it is this: a sandbag of French fries studded with cheese curds and soused with hot gravy. It is rich, heavy and will warm your bones. This, fellow Chicagoans, is a perfect dish for the second week of May.
But now we're not satisfied with just standard fare. Chicago has reached a level of acceptance with poutine that it is no longer a defined set of ingredients, but a springboard to more adventurous interpretations.
At one restaurant, we found poutine toppings of pierogi and sour cream. Mon dieu!
When you think about it, it's not too far off from pasta, only with fries as base starch and meat plus sauce atop. Potatoes pretty much go with anything.
Kalbi poutine, $9.95
For a "Gen Y-Korean" restaurant, Del Seoul's interpretation of poutine isn't all that Korean. Only the short rib, braised with kalbi marinade for hours until it pulls apart like pot roast, has that sweet soy quality that approaches Asian-ness. The rest of the dish is Western Hemisphere — crisp, nonstarchy seasoned fries, a blend of white cheddar and pepperjack cheeses, a light touch of beef gravy, Mexican crema and pickled red onions. The tine-tender beef and oozy cheese bring the two worlds together successfully. 2568 N. Clark St., 773-248-4227, delseoul.com
The Big Cheese Poutinerie
Notorious P.I.G., $7.99/$9.99
The Big Cheese Poutinerie began in Calgary, Alberta,, and in April opened its first American location in Wrigleyville. It couldn't have landed in a more appropriate neighborhood. Its Notorious P.I.G. is Example A: Here is a poutine without discretion or subtlety, a pile-on of root beer chipotle-braised pulled pork, bacon and crumbled Italian sausage that's less topping as it is meat roofing insulation for the fries below. Look, gawk all you want at its grotesque display of gluttony ... I'd hit up this again. The fries are crisp enough that the gravy soak doesn't fully sog up the potatoes. Yes, there are less ostentatious poutine interpretations on the menu. But the P.I.G. befits Wrigleyville, the YOLO of poutines, as the kids say — because you only live once. 3401 N. Clark St., 872-206-8749, mybigcheese.com
House poutine, $10
At the recent Poutine Fest in Chicago, The Gage retained the championship belt for a second straight year with its house poutine. By outward appearances there's not much differentiation from other gastropub versions. Look closer, and you'll see the alt factor is its deliberate, classically French construction. Firstly, there appears to be mirepoix here — the carrot-celery-onion foundation of French technique. There is duck confit with smoked gravy, its dual richness cut through with sweet pickled red onions. By the time fries are factored in, there's not much crisp texture left, but the result is not unlike a hearty and satisfying hunter's stew. 24 S. Michigan Ave., 312-372-4243, thegagechicago.com
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