Issue October 28, 2008

Beyond chicken-finger purgatory

Dining out with the kids in tough economic times

As the mother of two children (ages 4 and 14 months) and a devoted foodie, I’m often caught in a difficult situation when that box of pasta on the shelf just doesn’t look appealing and we decide to dine out. My husband and I agree that our sons must learn to be good dining citizens and try a variety of cuisines and tastes.

This is easier said than done. Most establishments that label themselves “kid-friendly” serve nothing but fried concoctions that dull our kids’ tastebuds and increase their waistlines. We often fall into the chicken-finger trap but realize there must be a way to feed our kids food that we would want to eat as well.

There are bright spots out there for parents looking to escape Chain Central. Ethnic dining is always an affordable alternative and can be educational as well as delicious. Many authentic ethnic restaurants are family-owned and welcome children as part of the experience. A recent dinner at Red Pepper Chinese Cuisine (2901 Brownsboro Road, 891-8868) was a hit with kids and adults alike. The Dan Dan appetizer ($4.25), composed of slightly spicy noodles with shredded pork and green onion, was gobbled up as “Chinese spaghetti.” Adults can order from the authentic Chinese menu for a truly memorable (and fiery) meal, while the kids share an entrée from the more familiar offerings.

International buffets (such as Indian and Thai) introduce children to new tastes while offering the comfort of familiar foods (tandoori chicken and basmati rice, for example). Creating a dining “passport” with your child and stamping a different country for every new experience will add to the sense of excitement about trying different cuisines. In the Metro area, one can find cuisines from around the globe, including Senegalese, Somali, Persian, Ethopian, Moroccan, Jamaican and Vietnamese. Kids can learn about each culture while sampling foods both familiar and exotic.

Other local restaurants have gotten the message that adults and children want to eat good, freshly prepared food for a reasonable price. One of the finest examples is Café Lou Lou (106 Sears Ave., 893-7776). Our friendly server rattled off an unpublished kids’ menu featuring everything from “Cheesy Noo-Noos” (pasta with homemade cheese sauce) to individual pita pizzas, all for a reasonable $4.95. Kids’ portions were ample and prepared with obvious attention to detail. My friend and I shared a half-portion of seared scallops over orzo ($8.75), which made a delicious (and economical) lunch when paired with one of the fabulous desserts. The slightly raucous din of Café Lou Lou at lunch made our little guys’ squeals of delight barely noticeable — a good thing, as many parents would know.

Although some people may be intimidated by the idea of fine dining with a young child, I have found that, for the most part, our children have risen to the occasion when presented with the opportunity. Some tips to increase success: dine early, prepare the child for the experience, be flexible and always be considerate of your fellow diners.

A great way to introduce children to the concept of fine dining can be found at Seviche Bistro (2929 Goose Creek Road, 425-1000). To celebrate the birth of his second son, Chef Anthony Lamas offered a “Kids Eat Free” promotion for the month of October. The “ninos e ninas” menu offers a variety of choices, including “Lil’ Churrascos” (skirt steak and hand-cut fries), shrimp and pasta with parmesan cream sauce. On Sundays, the deal gets even better — half-price bottles of wine, half-price seviches, $2 margaritas and $5 mojitos. Our family recently took advantage of the special and had a fantastic time introducing our little ones to Nuevo Latino cuisine. The guacamole, prepared tableside, was a hit with the baby, while our older son, a notoriously picky eater, finished everything on his plate and asked to share our entrees. My husband and I enjoyed half a bottle of Cosentino “The Zin” and took the rest home (nod to the state’s “doggy bag” law). We tucked the kids into bed and drank the rest of the wine in peace, proud that we had enjoyed a beautiful evening with our boys, helping them learn to love the joys of the table without breaking the bank.

 

Andrea Essenpreis is owner of Q&A Sweet Treats, a wholesale dessert shop located in La Grange.