Montreal is not frequently mentioned in discussions of great food cities. That’s odd, considering its French heritage, and the fact one of its restaurants (Joe Beef) was recently named among the world’s 100 best. Perhaps one reason for the lack of respect is Montreal’s most famed culinary contribution to the world, poutine, loosely translates from Acadian French as “mess.”
Poutine’s possibly apocryphal tale of origin has a customer asking Québécois restaurateur, Fernand Lachance, to put cheese curds on his French fries. Lachance, in true Gallic fashion, responded “ça va faire une maudite poutine” (it will make a damn mess). He may have been right, but it tasted good enough that the dish became a legend and his descriptor stuck.
It is Lachance’s fine mess that gives Mess Royale (142 University Ave.) in Hillcrest its name. Mess Royale’s poutine features hand-cut and twice-cooked French fries topped with imported-from-Wisconsin cheese curds all slathered in a brown gravy based on beef, veal and chicken stocks. Mess Royale offers 13 versions of the dish, ranging from the original to a lobster version. One of the best is the Super Mario with chicken, mushrooms and caramelized onions. Like all good poutines, the brown gravy seeps down through the fries and curds, coating them all. The chicken, onions and mushrooms provide savory, sweet and umami kicks, respectively, that serve to round out the dish’s flavor profile.
Restaurants don’t seem to be able to resist taking poutine up-market by adding a luxury ingredient. Mess Royale tries to do so with lobster and it doesn’t quite work. There is such a thing as too much of a good thing and lobster poutine is too much richness with no acid to cut it.
Mess Royale also offers another Montreal culinary trademark: bagels. Mess Royale imports its bagels twice a week from Montreal’s famous St. Viateur Bagel Shop. Classic Montreal bagels are a bit flatter than the New York version and are covered in sesame seeds, with a kiss of honey where New York’s would have a salty hint. The flatness makes them particularly good for sandwiches. The one with Norwegian smoked salmon, capers, red onions and cream cheese convinced me if God created bagels with cream cheese and lox in mind, these Montreal bagels are heaven sent.
There are other good options, too. The pulled-pork sandwich is good choice but the MTL toasty dog was the surprise of the place. The acidity of the mustard and slaw nicely balance the richness of the hot dog and buttery toasting of the bun.
But poutine is why you’re at Mess Royale. Lachance’s description of the addition of cheese curds to french fries as une maudite poutine may have been completely devoid of irony when uttered. The irony may be that, more than half a century later, it’s a dish that’s become a lens through which Montreal’s food is seen. A fine mess indeed.