The first time I went to Coeur, there was no poutine on the menu, and I was pissed. I mean, this place—opened in September by Brendan Hartranft, Leigh Maida and Brendan Kelly, who also run the decidedly non-Canadian Local 44, Strangelove’s and Memphis Taproom—was supposed to be a Montreal-inspired gastropub, and I’m pretty sure there’s a law that says if you name-check Montreal anywhere in the description of your restaurant, you have to have poutine.
Hell, even the faintest whiff of Canadian-ness in your restaurant (a maple tree growing within sight of the front door; chef went to Toronto on a sixth-grade field trip; owner’s cousin likes the Edmonton Oilers) and you should probably have poutine on the board just to be safe. But when you self-identify as the Montreal-iest restaurant in all of Philadelphia, there should be no question because poutine is to Montreal as cheesesteaks are to Philly—a city-defining dish, local blue-collar bar grub gone international, and the best possible argument for socialized medicine.
But Coeur (which means “heart”—the place in the body to which all poutine immediately migrates, filling you full of love and cheese curds and gravy) screwed me. I sat there at the bar and drank my fill of good beer (not Molson) and Bulleit bourbon and ate a poutine burger instead (with all the necessaries, plus confit tomato, fried potato skins and, you know, a burger) because it was the closest thing I could get to the thing I actually wanted.
Still, I’d really liked Coeur. Sitting in the bar felt a little like eating inside a whale because of the curved white ribs of the rafters overhead. The lights were dim. There are fireplaces (not in action on the nights I was there and, at least for now, unusable), but candles flickered everywhere, giving the whole room a warm, rustic, cozy feel. It’s the kind of place you could get lost in. Settle down with a couple friends or a good book, and, before you know it, it’s six months later and you’re carrying 10 extra pounds of gravy weight and working two shifts a week as a bar-back just to cover your bourbon tab.
So I returned, rolling in solo on a Thursday night, waiting for a friend who was running crazy late, and became that worst kind of customer—hogging a whole table by myself, drinking slowly, constantly poking at my cell phone and weirding out the customers around me. But the staff was cool with it, and when the other half of my twosome did finally show, our server immediately did two things precisely right.
Thing one: He instantly recognized in my friend’s eyes that blasted look of someone who’d just spent 30 minutes circling the neighborhood trying to find parking and suggested a cure of two fingers of whiskey, neat.
Thing two: He told us the specials. One of which was poutine.
See, here’s how things work at Coeur. Poutine is never on chef Andy Tessier’s actual menu (something like that would’ve simply been too obvious, Hartranft told me when I talked to him about it), but it’s always on the specials menu. That first night, sitting at the bar, I don’t know what happened. Maybe the bartender forgot to mention it. Maybe he looked at me and decided I was a man who’d already had his fair share of cheese curds (which is absolutely true).
That second night, though? A big bowl of hand-cut fries, topped with big, stretchy, barely melted cheese curds, all of it doused in salty beef gravy just thick enough to cling to the top fries without running down into the bottom of the bowl and turning the whole thing into soup. Our server pushed another table over to add to our two-top, because no serious eater is ever going to have enough real estate on a single barroom table to handle plates and cocktails and elbows and the wreckage of a meal attacked with the proper enthusiasm. To make good use of all that space, he brought pork fritters (a replacement for an early-menu inclusion of tête de veau, which likely scared too many people off) with a fennel and parsnip jam done in a perfect parmentier, then candied until they were honey-sweet and a perfect foil for the fatty pork, followed by more drinks.
The candles guttered and the people kept coming, crowding the bar and taking tables in the main dining room. We barely noticed because there was perfectly seared turbot in front of us, with crisp-edged Parisian gnocchi and wilted kale swimming in a puddle of lemon and garlic beurre blanc. Then bacon-wrapped rabbit porchetta over polenta, which we chose over the roasted beets with pistachios or the vegan Wellington because while it’s admirable that Tessier and his crew have given over so much menu space to the plant enthusiasts, we were still more interested in dishes like the grilled bavette steak with chard and mushrooms and brandy cream sauce, which we totally would’ve eaten if we’d been able to pack it in. If we hadn’t overdone it on the poutine and those crispy-soft and beautiful pig fritters, each the size of a child’s balled fist.
When we were done, we walked out, waddling only slightly, warm from the booze and full of rabbit and gravy. We hadn’t put away enough liquor to mistake the Italian Market for Montreal after dark, but Coeur’s warm glow did follow us a little way beyond the door. It’s a good bar with a great kitchen attached. A place that knows precisely what it wants to be.
But the next time I go, I’m going to remember to get a dessert order of poutine to take with me when I’m done, because the walk back to where my friend had finally found a parking spot was long enough that packing a snack wouldn’t have been the worst idea.
2 stars – Come if you’re in the neighborhood