La Banquise: Montreal comfort food at its best

poutine1If you live in or have spent a lot of time in any big city then you have hopefully been to a version of La Banquise. Every big city worth its salt has a local, special comfort food, and with that comes restaurants which set the standard for that comfort food. New York has Di Fara for pizza, Philadelphia has Pat’s for cheesesteak, and Montreal has La Banquise for poutine. Of course, all of these cities have dozens of incredible local comfort food joints, and long-time denizens love arguing about which is the best. That’s part of the fun.

Walking into La Banquise one is presented with technicolor tables and a casual atmosphere. The tables are covered in simply painted, bright pictures. The walls are giant blocks of color. The columns are lined with tiny mauve tiles. There is a large counter to the left of the entrance, behind which lies an abundance of stainless-steel gizmos. The building has a sort of old diner feel, though the decor is clearly recent. The tables are painted by the employees. What could be neater than that?

Anne Barsalou, current owner of La Banquise, greets us at the door and explains the restaurant’s history. La Banquise opened in 1968 and has been selling warm local comfort food for the vast majority of its existence. Originally they sold ice cream (banquise means iceberg), but ice cream is not the most successful year-round treat in frosty Montreal. The restaurant is open 24 hours a day, and always has been. In 1977 La Banquise started selling the classic poutine: French fries, cheese curds and brown gravy.IMG_20141009_103826499_HDR

Anne bought the restaurant from her father in 1994. Customers would ask her to put certain toppings on the poutine, and if the poutine turned out well she would ask the customer to name the new dish. From there she started a whole menu of poutines. They put out the poutine menu the following spring and business went crazy. La Banquise now has over 30 poutines on the menu.

We ordered quite a few poutines. They were almost all piled generously with fries, gravy, cheese curds, and toppings though we all ordered regular sized dishes (the regular poutines are around $9, large poutines around $13). The poutines all had a few things in common: they were warm, the cheese was savory and squeaky, the gravy was thick and delicious, and the fries somehow managed to stay solid despite being covered in gravy. A good start.

One poutine still sits in the back of my mind, beckoning me back whenever my discipline wavers: the Reggae. Topped with ground beef, guacamole, diced tomatoes, and hot peppers, the Reggae brought surprising delight with every bite. The ground beef brilliantly supported the core poutine ingredients in bringing the heavy, fatty flavor that defines poutine. The hot pepper added a subtle, flavorful heat. It didn’t overpower the dish, it was just enough to keep me on my toes. Finally, the diced tomatoes and guacamole cooled down the bite, preparing me for the next one. I could have eaten three more.

IMG_20141009_104027861La Banquise has a huge boon that most other local comfort food joints do not have. La Banquise is flexible, it is open to change, it is looking for innovation. Afraid of losing that which defines them, many iconic comfort food restaurants pride themselves on only selling the best of the classic recipe. This works, of course, but for how long? La Banquise’s flexibility makes it simultaneously exciting and comforting, classic and modern. Don’t wonder for one second whether or not La Banquise’s openness to change has affected the quality of their core ingredients: it hasn’t. La Banquise is not to be ignored when one is looking for comfort food in Montreal.

La Banquise is located at 994, rue Rachel Est. They can be reached at 514-525-2415 or salut@restolabanquise.com

– David Johnston, Game Programming Major, Fall 2014