Poutine in Tokyo: Japan takes on Canada's favorite comfort food

Poutine in Tokyo: Japan takes on Canada's favorite comfort food

Can a dish made of French fries, cheese and gravy catch on in the land of ramen? One Japanese fan is willing to take the risk
Sacre bleu! Besides regular poutine, seen here, Robson Fries offers butter chicken curry, chili and roast beef versions.

In Tokyo’s jam-packed restaurant landscape, filled with sushi, ramen and hundreds of other options, 26-year-old Yuta Fujino’s modest establishment stands out.

Robson Fries, tucked away in the winding streets of the Japanese capital's funky Shimokitazawa neighborhood, has a menu focused on one item only: Canadian poutine. 

“I lived in Vancouver for a year in 2008,” says Fujino. “It was the first time I had poutine. The taste surprised me.”

Robson Fries, named after one of Vancouver's most famous streets, has been serving up cheesy goodness to Tokyo for a year. So much so that he was motivated to bring the popular fries/cheese/gravy combo to Japan.

But before he opened his business in June of 2012 -- it's named after Robson Street in Vancouver -- he went on a pilgrimage to the Canadian province of Quebec, the birthplace of poutine, and spent time training at a restaurant in Montreal. 

“I asked them how to cook gravy and how to cook fries and everything,” he recalls. “They were really kind. They helped me with everything.” 

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National dish, international buzz

Poutine, seen here with real cheese curds, is Canada's unofficial national dish. Poutine, Québécois slang for “a mess,” was created in the 1950s. The classic version consists of French fries, a beef or chicken stock-based gravy and white cheddar cheese curds that squeak when chewed -- or as they say in French, “le fromage qui fait ‘squick-squick.” 

“It’s simple and good,” says Patrick Martineau, co-founder of Poutinewar.com, a website dedicated to all things poutine.

“People want more because it’s good fast food and it could be fancy and funky at the same time.”

These days, poutineries add a wide variety of toppings, from various types of meat and vegetables to different sauces and fried eggs.

Montreal-based chef Chuck Hughes mixed in lobster when he used the dish to win Iron Chef America in 2011.

The fascination with this fare has morphed into such an obsession that Canadians pay tribute to it with an annual World Poutine Eating Championship in Toronto and Poutine Week, or Semaine de la Poutine, in Montreal.

Restaurants from New York to Chicago, Chiang Mai to Auckland also serve this calorie-packed cuisine.

More on CNN: 11 things to know before visiting Quebec 

Poutine and Canada Dry. Doesn't get more Canuck then that. At Robson Fries, diners pass through a set of sliding doors to step into the restaurant, which occupies a space no bigger than a parking spot.

Fujino enthusiastically runs through the menu: the gravy poutine, the butter chicken curry poutine, the chili poutine, plus the long list of add-ons ranging from fried garlic to corn to jalapeño to roast beef.

Then Fujino’s colleague, Naoki Shiba, gets to work, cooking up the fries in rice bran oil, which is lower in cholesterol.

“Sei!” Shiba shouts a few minutes later.

“Some ramen shops say that when the noodles are done,” explains Fujino. “Here, it means we've fried the French fries twice.”

He pauses for a few seconds. 

“And it entertains customers.”

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Curd crisis

Japanese diners give Robson Fries a try. Clearly, fries topped with cheese is a dish that knows no cultural bounds. Hardcore poutine fans will scoff at the lack of a key ingredient in the dish -- cheese curds.

Fujino is unable to import them from Canada, so he uses shredded cheese as a substitute. Some poutine aficionados would consider this sacrilege. 

Nevertheless, the fries float in that magical zone between crispy and soft. The cheese, while not the real deal, melts into all the right places. The gravy has a light consistency, and is salty with just a hint of sweet. 

“That was the most difficult thing,” he proudly replies, when complimented on his gravy. 

The Japanese customers seem just as enthusiastic as the Canadian ones who come to Robson Fries for a taste of home.

Eriko Fujita, 22, chows down on a roast beef poutine with her friend, Naoko Miashita. 

"I like it because it's greasy," says Fujita between bites. 

“It’s delicious,” adds Miashita.  

Robson Fries, Shimokitazawa, 2-31-5 Setagaya-ku, Tokyo; +81 3 6407 1485 

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C. James Dale is a Canadian journalist based in Tokyo.

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