"My mother was able to smell salt," recalled chef Luc Alarie, owner of , a restaurant centered on the French-Canadian cuisine of his childhood. He remembers the daily race home to freshly-baked food with his seven siblings. "I'm telling you, we were running from school for that bread."
Alarie has had a similar effect on his customers, who have flocked to for 12 years to taste his spin on those distant dishes, particularly "poutine" -- a mouth-watering "mess" of fries, gravy, and cheese curd that originated in rural Quebec in the 1950s.
On Wednesday, next door to , Alarie will open P'tit Soleil, a bar featuring beer and cocktail ingredients imported from Canada, more dining space, and increased emphasis on the very popular poutine.
"It's comfort food," said Alarie. "In Canada, you eat poutine after you go out at night, after you go to the bar, you go drinking. And you go to sleep."
Alarie strives to provide new intepretations of poutine without sacrificing tradition. Toppings at Soleil and the upcoming P'tit Soleil may include the usual home-made gravy smothering; bolognese sauce; cognac peppercorn; italian sausage with onions, roasted peppers, and tomatoes; peas, chicken, and gravy; filet mignon with mushrooms and a cognac cream sauce; mussels au gratin; and merguez sausage with spicy harissa creme sauce.
The cheese, however, must be left alone, Alarie said. Without a certain type of cheddar curds, poutine is not poutine. "We're the only ones doing poutine the way they do in Canada," he said. Some suggested he add a dessert poutine to the menu, maybe with sweet pineapple sauce or chocolate, but "my fellow Quebecois said, 'Do not do that.'"
He has spent much time experimenting. "It's a lot of hours, and a lot research," said Alarie of the chef's life. "You always have to create something else." With heavy culinary competition throughout Los Angeles, Alarie explained, "you have to keep your customer happy, make things they don't find any other place."
In fact, a poutine-only menu can't be found anywhere else in the region. It's one of the offerings that have earned Soleil a loyal following—so loyal that a few customers have dishes named in their honor, such as the "Sam and Jen" (New York steak with tiger shrimp), the "Steak a la Christine" (grilled steak topped with a cognac peppercorn sauce), and the Sam and Jen a la Christine (surf 'n turf with cognac peppercorn sauce).
While Alarie enjoys the creative challenges of the kitchen, he would rather be mingling with the diners. "It's a reward to see people eating something, and they love it," he said. "There's no money worth more than that."
P'tit Soleil is located next door to Soleil at 1386 Westwood Blvd. The restaurant is open from 12 p.m.- 12 a.m. Monday through Friday and 9 a.m.-12 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Weekend brunch service will begin later in July.