Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Restaurant Review - Smoke's Poutinerie

A little while ago I wrote a partial review of this establishment and now I am ready to give a full review. This is also the first review I am posting of a Guelph restaurant, mainly because I do not eat at many restaurants here. It will also be something of an analysis of poutine - what it is and what makes a good one.

Most of the reviews I have posted so far are for upscale or mid-range eateries; fast food is not something I would generally consider worthy of review. And not only would this sort of food be considered fast food, but this is also a chain restaurant, with several locations in Toronto and has outlets in several other cities in Ontario and 3 other provinces. But to me, Smoke’s is different, as they specialize in one food item - poutine - and they use quality fresh ingredients.

Smoke’s Poutinerie Guelph is located in the heart of downtown on Wyndham street. The area is the closest Guelph has to a sketchy inner-city area (the storefront on the right is a shelter and employment centre). But more important for this establishment it is only a few doors down from MacDonell street, which has most of the city’s bars and clubs. As poutine is considered ideal late night food for those who are drunk and/or stoned, Smoke’s is perfectly positioned to make a fortune, especially since they stay open until 4am on Friday and Saturday nights. I had already told you how, when I was there at 2:30am during Nuit Blanche, there were huge lines filling the restaurant and it was a madhouse inside. I went back recently at a much saner time and found no lineup at all but there were several customers there even at 3pm, not a typical time for people to be eating something as substantial as poutine. While on my previous visit, I stuck to the basic, traditional poutine, this time I chose from their extensive list of more elaborate topped offerings. I ordered the double pork, which uses a green peppercorn sauce and is topped with chipotle pulled pork and double-smoked bacon. These meats are also part of several other possible combinations, along with ground beef, shaved roast beef, sausage, grilled chicken, chili and even Montreal Smoked Meat. There was also a cheese sauce used on some of the dishes.

I’m not sure that there really is a perfect poutine. I say this because it was originally intended to be a sloppy, utilitarian food, and also there are inherent contradictions within the structure of the dish that seem to deter excellence. Obviously the ultimate sign of quality in a deep fried item such as fries is to be golden and crispy on the outside and properly cooked on the inside. Now the fastest way to turn fried food into a soggy mess is to smother it with a sauce or anything else wet. So in principle, gravy on fries should be a bad idea. While some restauranteurs have attempted to elevate the poutine through the use of high end ingredients such as foie gras (I’m looking at you Martin Picard!), this is a food of humble origins - a workingman’s food - so being too fancy and meticulous seems at odds with what the poutine is supposed to be. The paragon of poutine excellence is supposedly found at Montreal fast food joints and places you could only call dives. I’m guessing they don’t use fresh ingredients or make their sauce from scratch. So, can poutine fit in with attention to quality?

Let’s get back to Smoke’s. I found mostly positives with some negatives in both poutines I tried, and what I found seems to reveal something about what a poutine is, should be, and can be. First the traditional poutine was quite easy to judge as there are only three elements: fries, gravy and cheese curds. The fries were absolute perfection. Soft and tender inside, and the very first fries I could taste before the gravy soaked in were golden and crispy. It is abundantly clear they double fry using fresh-cut, not frozen, potatoes. The cheese curds were quite tasty and at just the right temperature, somewhere between melted and still intact and squeaking. The gravy was not quite what I was used to and perhaps a little too herbed and peppery, but this gave me the idea that the sauce was maybe better suited to the more elaborate choices.

The double pork poutine was quite interesting. With this version, all the meat is topping the poutine, so you don’t get any crispy fries as they are all underneath. But the advantage is the flavour of the meat soaks into the fries and creates a more balanced flavour. The pulled pork was delicious. By itself it would maybe be a little too sweet, but mixed into the poutine and combined with the double-smoked bacon, it worked perfectly. Here the gravy became a peppercorn gravy. It seemed to be the same gravy as on the traditional with green peppercorns added. But where the gravy didn’t seem to fit so well with the standard poutine, it was perfectly matched for this meat-filled version. Which was just as I thought; their recipes are geared toward the more elaborate, topped poutines. Some of the other options on the menu scared me a bit, such as the smoked meat poutine which had Montreal smoked meat, pickle and yellow mustard and nacho poutines with cheese sauce, others with chilli and so on. But this seems to be their focus, so I believe that those should be good too.

I think what I can conclude from this is that poutine is not really an example of fine cuisine, but more a greasy and comfortable mess of food that will soak up the excess alcohol (or the after affects thereof) from a night of excess. At its best poutine would not be too fancy but we can see it is certainly possible to use well sourced and fresh, local ingredients to make the poutine quite close to real food. It can be simple or baroque. In general, I tend to prefer the simple, but Smoke’s has designed their menu to highlight the more complex offerings, so there I do prefer the more elaborate choices.

Regular poutines range from about 6 to 10 dollars, with large (trust me, nobody needs to eat a large poutine) a couple dollars more. They have not only ordinary soft drinks, but some natural, locally bottled beverages as well. This is also a chain restaurant with several locations in Toronto and across Ontario and some other provinces. And I have found out that this winter they will open a location in the ultimate poutine battleground - downtown Montreal right in the middle of the city’s biggest bar scene. Overall, a fast food restaurant with a quality level quite a bit higher than usual for fast food.

Smoke's Poutinerie on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Cherry Cheesecake

When I was working in restaurants, one of my specialties was pastry and baking. Yet you may have noticed that I have yet to post a single dessert recipe on this blog. First, I don’t do much baking at home and second, I tend more to follow written recipes rather than create my own, since baking relies far more on exact measurements and proportions. But here is a good one for you. I took the proportions from a recipe in a book but made changes to the flavours and used a couple tricks I learned as a professional. This is a fantastic cheesecake that is just a little bit different.

Cherry Cheesecake

2 1/4 cups chocolate cookie crumbs - I used a local brand of cocoa snaps
½ cup granola, ground to crumbs
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup coconut flakes (unsweetened)
2/3 cup melted butter

3x 250g packages Philadelphia cream cheese
2 oz plain goat cheese
½ cup + 2 Tbsp sour cream
2 cups sugar
3 extra large eggs
1 cup cherry pie filling - see recipe below

To Finish
2 cups cherry pie filling or enough to cover
1/4 cup toasted coconut flakes

First prepare the crust. This follows the procedure for a standard graham cracker crust but I have substituted a few ingredients for flavour. Instead of graham crackers or oreo cookies, I used ShaSha brand cocoa snaps made by a Toronto-area bakery. I suppose some other chocolate cookie crumbs might do - even oreo crumbs if you must. But they should be chocolate as this is a very good match with the cherries. Grind the cookies and granola together to form crumbs and combine with the sugar and coconut flakes (keep the coconut flakes whole for texture). Then add the melted butter, adding just enough to hold everything together. Press the mixture into a 12-inch springform pan or tart pan with removable bottom. Bake at 375 degrees for 10 minutes or until the crust has hardened. Let cool.

Be sure that the cream cheese has softened to room temperature. Normally I prefer organic dairy or at least dairy products that are local and without tons of additives. Yet cheesecake is somewhat fickle so you need a cream cheese that is sufficiently firm so as not to make your filling too watery. This is why traditional cheesecake recipes do not work with low-fat cream cheese - they have more water in them. The next time I make this I will probably try an organic cream cheese and see if it works. Whip the cream cheese, goat cheese and sugar together in a stand mixer using the paddle attachment until the mix is smooth. Mix in the sour cream. I learned this trick working in restaurants. One of the restaurants I worked in (in pastry) had an amazing cheesecake recipe and the secret was the addition of sour cream. I have since found many experienced pastry chefs also are using sour cream in their recipes. It really boosts the flavour. Then add the eggs, one at a time. Make sure each egg is fully incorporated into the batter before adding the next one. Now with the oven preheated to 325 degrees, assemble the cheesecake. Pour the batter into the crust, then take the cherry filling and swirl spoonfuls of it into the batter. This will produce a small amount of marbling in your cheesecake. Bake in the centre of your oven for 1 hour and 15 minutes or until the cheesecake has firmed up. Then turn off the oven but leave the cheesecake inside for another hour. This will allow the cake to cool more gradually without cracking. Due to the low oven temperature and a relatively small amount of egg, you don’t need a water bath for this recipe. Leave it to finish cooling at room temperature but do not take it out of the pan until fully cooled. Once cool, refrigerate the cake overnight. When ready to serve, unmold and top the cake with more of the cherry filling, leaving maybe a half-inch on the outside uncovered. Sprinkle flakes of toasted coconut on top and serve.

Cherry Pie Filling

No - I am not saying it’s okay to buy a commercial product here. This is rather easy and quick to make. The only difficulty is that it is hard to make this in small quantities. But then, you would require large amounts of this if you ever want to make cherry pie, and if you freeze the excess you will have filling available.

1 1/4 litres water
1 litre cherry juice
680 g sugar
170 g cornstarch
10 lbs thawed frozen sour cherries (in cherry season, stores often carry 10lb pails of frozen, pitted cherries exactly for this purpose - making pie)

Juice of ½ lemon

If the cherries are packed with sugar you will need to calculate how much sugar is already in the cherries and subtract that from the amount of sugar called for. 10% sugar by weight is typical, therefore a 10lb pail of sweetened cherries would contain 1lb of sugar (454g), meaning you would only add 266g of additional sugar. Cherry juice can be found at health food stores.

Combine half the cherries, one litre of water, the cherry juice and sugar in a large pot and bring to a boil. Simmer for about 15-20 minutes or until the cherries have cooked down and softened. Then add the remaining cherries and the lemon juice and bring back to a boil. Dissolve the cornstarch into the remaining 250 ml of water, then whisk this mixture into the cherries. Let this boil for one minute, whisking constantly, and being mindful that, as the mixture thickens, there is a risk of splatter and that can hurt. After a minute, turn off the heat and let the mixture cool before portioning into containers and refrigerating or freezing. Though this sounds like an insane quantity, this will only fill 4 cherry pies. Of course for the cheesecake you will be using far less, so feel free to make a half recipe.

UPDATE: I recently used some of the frozen cherry filling for a different application, and realized that, before using thawed cherry pie filling, it must first be reheated to boiling, then cooled back down. Otherwise the cornstarch gel will develop an unpleasant texture resulting from the cornstarch coming out of phase. By re-melting and and heating the filling, the cornstarch will reset and recover its former texture.

This cheesecake is perfect for entertaining. While it takes some time to complete all the steps, it is not very difficult to prepare and looks impressive. And the taste is exceptional.