Culture | The salty, simple taste of cheap

There are few things so pleasurable as guiltlessly eating a cheap and filling meal. For a starving student such as myself, quantity often precedes quality – which is why St. Henri diner Nouveau Système felt like such a great discovery.

Nouveau Système lies on Notre-Dame Ouest, in an area that reminded me of Steel City, where at any given moment you might spot a Sylvester Stallone-type figure drifting right on by the diners, gas stations, and florists – possibly on his way to meeting other Sylvester Stallone-type figures for drinks and fisticuffs.

A greasy diner just like every other greasy diner, Nouveau Système’s counters boast scattered Pepsi cans and pizza boxes stacked high. Behind them, a few chefs mumble jokes as they fry everything imaginable. A selection of cheese and carrot cakes sits below a flat screen TV, while decade-old pictures of meals line the back wall. Completing the look were its tables and tiled floors – coloured in a forlorn and unclean teal – its tarnished pink booths, and its oddly abundant mirrors, seemingly placed to allow you to watch yourself eat.

In short, it looks like the Seinfeld diner, populated by King of the Hill’s cast, spending their mealtimes watching hockey, making desultory remarks, and growing bald.

My friends and I sat down in one of the pink booths, with the intention of eating a full meal for under $10. Having leafed through the menus, we all realized it would be impossible to spend any more. Système’s selections consisted of fries, gravy, chicken, steak, pizza, and spaghetti. Everything else was a combination of such staples.

The most instantly appealing option was “Pizzaghetti” – a pizza cut into the shape of Pacman, with spaghetti crammed inside its cheesy triangular mouth. Second to that was the “Michigan avec frites,” a large hotdog oozing with grease and covered by an onerous meat sauce, which settled elegantly over the plate.

Feeling somewhat risk-averse, I avoided such extravagant dishes, ordering the simple “Spaghetti and Chicken” dish. It was awful. The tomato-based meat sauce was straight-from-the-can; overwhelmingly salty, it enveloped my pallet with a certain je ne sais quoi aftertaste.

Meanwhile, my Chicagoan friend, Clay – who was in Canada for the first time – thought it appropriate to have a go at the poutine. It was so large it had to be shared. A friend reported that there was a hint of cinnamon beneath the mass amounts of gravy and salt. I couldn’t pick it out, but I trust it was there.

But don’t get the wrong impression. When you eat cheap, you get the sense you deserve food like this: there should be gratuitously large amounts of calories; there should be substantial health risks. “It’s the best kind of bad,” Emma said prophetically.

When we had finished eating, we collectively felt full, fat, and greasy. So, in a vain attempt to burn calories, we decided to examine the paintings on the wall.

The one with the most effective power depicted a blonde woman in a garden, looking like she either belonged in a cult or the fifties, thrusting a fencing sword into a small mirror – which was on fire. We concluded that she was piercing the fiery frame of eternity and Hell. “Avant-larde,” Clay said.

Next to her was a painting of an Olympian man dressed entirely in white, thrusting his fencing sword triumphantly into a heavenly sky, from which rays of sunlight enveloped him in an angelic spotlight. Presumably he had run a race – a race with a sword – because an applauding crowd had gathered behind him at the finish line. They too were dressed in white.

I couldn’t find a reason for the cultish motifs of light and fencing, but they certainly gave Nouveau Système a distinct charm. We had a very pleasant time eating, discussing the artwork, and digesting our food amidst the clamour of spitting grease and smoker’s cough.

Nouveau Système isn’t worth going to if you aren’t in the area. But if you ever wake up there, finding yourself next to Sylvester Stallone in one of its onerous pink booths, you might as well – you know – take a look at the paintings.


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