There are cheese fries, and then there’s poutine—the French-Canadian gift to the world of hangovers. This simple dish consists of French fries layered with squeaky cheese curds and beef gravy. It seems predestined that Americans would revere this hypersaturated Montreal staple, yet the dish is virtually unknown in most of this country. And where it is popular, poutine bears a few “cosmopolitan” characteristics.
Take San Francisco’s Salt House, where they pair their poutine with the loftiest of company—foie gras. The Salt House was where chef Robert Dasalla of the new San Pedro Square Market‘s Little Chef Counter was first inspired to bring the dish to San Jose, and add his own sublime variation: a braised short-rib poutine that he half-jokingly refers to as “a little heart attack in a bowl.”
From the jump, Dasalla’s adaptation contains a notable plot twist: the cheese curds have been omitted. “I don’t really care for them,” Dasalla admits. Opting instead for a freshly melted cheese sauce, he further departs from tradition by paying special attention to the base ingredient. “We blanch the fries, so even if they’re covered in gravy, they’ll retain their crunch,” he tells me. In this case, tender strips of short rib render a viscous, umami broth that’s reminiscent of pozole, the Mexican stew.
Poutine has many close cousins. The closest hails from New Jersey, where the fries are thicker and the cheese is mozzarella—disco fries anyone? But it’s unlikely that something called “disco fries” will be served with caviar or lobster, and so poutine retains its charm. Dasalla trekked far and wide to see for himself. “I went to Montreal’s Au Pied Cochon specifically to try their poutine,” he tells me with a knife in hand, dicing vegetables in between shifts.
Dasalla and partner Steve Le do not consider themselves gourmands, or less flatteringly, “foodies.” You wouldn’t know it by looking at their menu though, which boasts epicurean indulgences as well as upmarket renditions of old favorites. Duck confit risotto co-exists with the deceptively simple “mushrooms on toast” sandwich, filled with mascarpone and both portobello and cremini mushrooms. Even modest standards have subtle adjustments—they use rock cod for their fish and chips, and substitute horseradish for mayonnaise in the coleslaw.
When Dasalla and Le first thought about opening their own restaurant, they insisted it be on their terms. As the former sous chef of San Francisco’s Waterbar, Dasalla was constantly juggling a variety of tasks for everyone but himself. “I wanted to do something for myself and for San Jose,” he tells me. Le echoes a civic responsibility, adding that “[San Jose] isn’t a gourmet city … yet. But this kind of food shouldn’t be segregated. That’s what makes these types of bistros perfect—they’re for everyone.”
Little Chef Counter, 87 N. San Pedro St., San Jose; Monday-Wednesday, 11am-9pm, Thursday-Saturday till 10pm, Sunday till 7pm