Those three core ingredients are essential, Smolkin says. "Without them, you're definitely doing it wrong."
That said, adding to that trifecta isn't against the poutine rulebook, a move that Smoke’s is notorious for pulling. Smolkin notes that it loads the traditional poutine with "a limitless variation of toppings. We throw in everything, from chipotle pulled pork and double-smoked bacon to spicy Italian sausage and caramelized onions. We even throw on scrambled eggs, maple syrup, Tabasco sauce, and bacon."
Annie Barsalou, co-owner of La Banquise, a Montreal landmark restaurant famous for its poutines, local microbrews, and 24-hour service in the heart of the Plateau Downtown, can't stress the importance of the same three main ingredients enough.
According to Barsalou, "the three basic items are fries, cheese, and gravy. Of course, the classic would be with curd cheese, but is it the law? No way! You can do whatever you want as long as it is delicious." Poutine aficionados may disagree; many argue that the "squeaky" cheese is a necessity, but Barsalou is more lenient on the rules.
According to Dustin Gillman, who runs @FoodGuyMTL, the cheese is what makes all the difference. He explains that the potatoes and gravy are “pretty standard, and variations of each are generally OK, but the cheese can make all the difference between a good one and a wrong one.”
So what would those be? “Stay away from mozzarella, brie, or any other really melty cheese," Gillman says. "The curd is the one and only cheese for poutine.”
Gillman goes on to explain how the ideal poutine should be prepared, stating that the "fries must not disintegrate under the hot gravy. They must be crispy, not soggy. The cheese can melt a bit, but also not completely melt away. A sign of a good cheese curd is one that stays together from beginning to end. The gravy must be a rich, brown sauce.” It's all in the details.
Montreal's food guy is all for adding ingredients and trying specialty poutines, but he asserts that the only way to tell if a restaurant has a good one or not is to try a standard poutine first; it’s the only way to know for sure if the place knows what it's doing.