ALLEN STREET POUTINE COMPANY

Jake Fraser - Co-Owner of Allen Street Poutine Company in Buffalo New York. Serving the classic Canadian dish of fresh cheese curds, french fries, and hot gravy.
Owner of Allen Street Poutine Company Jake Fraser

What’s your favorite comfort food? Is it homemade mac and cheese? Smothered meatloaf? A big breakfast of biscuits and gravy? Your mom’s tuna noodle casserole? When I’m craving something that’s filling and bad for me after a night at the bar or a day in the snow I turn to something that reminds me of my childhood in Canada – Poutine.

For those not to speed on this cheesy, gravy drenched mound of Canadian comfort food – here’s an overview. Poutine is a dish that originated in Quebec and at its most basic is composed of three primary ingredients: french fries, hot gravy, and cheese curds. And within that essential structure a million permutations exist – allowing an individual plate of poutine to exist anywhere on the spectrum from late-night heart-attack bar food to fine dining fare featuring a host of luxurious add-ons. The fries should be crispy and in that perfect medium between too thick and too thin – I’m partial to the hand cut kind that leaves the occasional bit of potato skin intact on the fry. The gravy will often be a thin turkey or chicken gravy, though veal and beef-based gravies are also popular. This gravy needs to be served just hot enough to soften but not totally melt the final element, which are the squeaky tangy fresh cheese curds (which, if you live in Canada or any of the US border states, you are probably already intimately familiar with. And for those of you who aren’t, it’s something you should seek to remedy as soon as you can – I suggest ordering some from Western New York purveyor Yancy’s Fancy or even trying to make your own at home, because when it comes to making the perfect poutine the freshness of the curds is key.)

Prior to opening Allen Street Poutine Company, Jake Fraser owned two chip trucks at Sherkston Shores in nearby Port Colborne, Ontario, just across the Peace Bridge from Buffalo. He spent his summers serving fries to tourist crowds on the beaches and hitting the bars with friends at night, nights that often ended with a late night plate of Poutine. He wanted to bring that experience to a more permanent venue, so he teamed up with business partner and longtime friend Konstantine Kentros to bring poutine south of the (Canadian) border. “I knew that poutine was the late night bar food of choice in Canada, but was something of a novelty in The States. Despite being known as The ‘All America City’ there are a ton of expats here and there’s a strong connection between Buffalo and Southern Ontario. There’s a great bar scene, the weather is cold, Buffalonians love to have fun, and there was a need for more great late night food options – Poutine is a great match for that culturally. On top of all that, being in the heart of a bar and music-rich area like Allentown is such a natural fit for us.”

The Montreal Smoked Meat Poutine at Allen Strett Poutine Company in Buffalo, New York
My actual lunch on this shoot – Montreal Smoked Meat Poutine

When I first moved from Canada to the US as a teenager it was a rarity for me to come across poutine. What had once been nearly ubiquitous everywhere I went was now mostly relegated to a rare treat that I got to indulge in on family trips back to the homeland. I spent a lot of time trying to explain to my friends exactly what this mysterious dish was, and convince them that “no, you’ll love it if you try it” (I also spent a lot of time wondering why so many of my friends, despite living mere minutes from another country, had never set foot in Canada – though that quickly changed when we all approached adulthood and started taking advantage of the fact that the drinking age in Ontario is 19, at which time poutine became everyone’s favorite post bar food). Thankfully, Jake and Konstantine are changing that perception – Poutine is becoming less of a here-and-gone trend as it has been in the US in the past and becoming a true fixture of the WNY late night bar scene – just as it should be.

As the dish has evolved it’s become something of a framework, much like hotdogs and pizza – a basic structure that’s informed and reinvented by the experiences of the people preparing and eating it. Much as I’ve enjoyed Sonora dogs that capture Southwestern/Mexican flavors, or binged on amazing Georgian Khachapuri, I’ve run into poutine that pulls flavors from all over the world: Indian Poutine with butter chicken and paneer, Trinidadian inspired versions with curry goat, poutines featuring foie gras and foraged mushrooms that would be at home in a fine French restaurant, and Jake even told me of a Korean remix of the dish with kimchi and bulgogi that he’s come across. As a dish that originated in a country that often celebrates its diversity and multiculturalism, it’s no surprise that those varied experiences and palettes have had an influence on its cuisine.

Jake Fraser - Co-Owner of Allen Street Poutine Company in Buffalo New York. Serving the classic Canadian dish of fresh cheese curds, french fries, and hot gravy. Allen Street Poutine Company’s menu features both the classic rendition of the dish as well as regularly updated offerings based on a variety of regional and international influences. Among the highlights are Buffalo-centric versions like a Buffalo chicken poutine and a beef on weck variety featuring slow roasted beef, caraway, and coarse salt as a topping. Sloppy Joe, Philly cheesesteak, and a pulled pork with red cabbage slaw poutine round out the slate of American inspired flavors. Poland is represented by a poutine adorned with pierogi and sauerkraut, Greece comes strong with a rich poutine seasoned with feta, tomatoes, and oregano. A spicy General Tao’s chicken represents the Asian flavor profiles, and a nacho-style poutine brings little Tex-Mex heat to the party. And of course Canada brings it strong with what, in my opinion, is the restaurant’s signature dish – a Montreal smoked meat poutine covered with the restaurant’s signature cured brisket and pickles (and it’s one of the few places in the States I’ve come across that you’ll even see Montreal smoked meat on menu). There’s even a vegan poutine available to make sure no one is left out of the fun.

After a few rounds of drinks on a cold winter night in Buffalo, it’s comforting to know that there’s somewhere me and my friends can go that hits all the right notes: open late, warm, welcoming, and with great food and beer. It doesn’t hurt that for me it’s like having a little slice of Canada sitting right there inside one of my favorite Buffalo neighborhoods.

STEVE GEDRA OF THE BLACK SHEEP

Chef Steve Gedra of the Black Sheep in Buffalo, NY.

For a long time Steve Gedra has been my favorite chef cooking in Buffalo.

With the two restaurants he’s owned in the city alongside his wife Ellen – their former Elmwood Avenue spot Bistro Europa, and their current restaurant The Black Sheep, Steve has cemented himself as one of the most exciting figures in the Buffalo dining scene, and I’ve got a lot of reasons to appreciate what he does – some culinary, and some a little more personal.

I love the fact that his menus often reflect things that I grew up with that tend to be a little harder to find on most local menus: head cheese, pig ears and pork liver aren’t uncommon things to see when you look over the menu at The Black Sheep. A lot of these are things that remind me of meals I shared with my dad before he passed way (coincidentally – I think he would have really liked Steve’s food).

I love that he works so closely with local producers to pass on the area’s best to his customers.

I love that Steve constantly mixes it up, often inviting other local chefs into his kitchen to collaborate as part of his monthly Midnight Mass events.

I love that Steve can convert some of the pickiest eaters I know – namely my fiancée. As an avowed pork hater she gets mad if I even cook bacon in the house, but she will gladly chow down on any number of porcine goodies if Steve is serving them.

I love Ellen’s deserts – even if for some mystifying reason you don’t eat anything else on the menu, just order dessert and you’ll be happy.

And I love that when I was recovering from a really nasty surgery that kept me from working for quite some time Steve invited Erin and I to Bistro Europa for what was, at the time, the most relaxing and stress free meal we had been able to enjoy in a while – he’s a genuinely welcoming and caring person who wears his love for his customers on his sleeve.

It was amazing to finally have a chance to create this portrait of Steve in the front bar of The Black Sheep. It was a gorgeous sunny afternoon before a weekday dinner kicked off, so we had some wonderful light coming in through the windows while we set up this shot and enjoyed some of the fantastic Chemex brewed coffee Steve made for us. Steve and Ellen put a lot of care into the design of the restaurant, including the intimate front bar that then opens up into the larger rear dining room, which is where we decided to photograph Steve enjoying a coffee and a few seconds of quiet prior to service.