Dining out with children is an exercise in situational awareness. Each experience is unique, with different variables leading to different possible outcomes, DEFCON-like in their escalating threat levels. Keen observation, forward planning and prior experience are critical in determining the proper strategy. Here at DEFCON Dining, we do the grunt work for you. It ain't always pretty.
Talking your children through what's expected of them at dinner is not always enough. If you don't actually put them out there, in the trenches with live fire, they'll never be truly ready. I'm not talking Applebee's, here. That would be like preparing soldiers for war by having them play the balloon-popping squirt gun games at a carnival. Sure, they might win a giant teddy bear, but they still won't know what to do when the shrapnel is flying. If you want them to be ready to eat at real restaurants, you have to take them to real restaurants.We're finally making some real headway, as discussed in my recent post about Oxheart.
We've spent a lot of time and effort putting our kids, and ourselves, through DEFCON Dining boot camp. With each success, and each failure, we've learned valuable lessons about how to win this particular war. When we decided to spend a few days in Austin over the summer, we decided to put those lessons into action, taking the kids along to one of the nicer places we'd hazarded in a while, and I had Foreign & Domestic in the cross hairs.
Vacations can be a great time to hazard a nice meal with your kids; the sense of adventure is ripe, and it's a good idea to pluck it while you can. We planned our dinner after a day of kayaking, extending the sense of newness and excitement. We also planned it before a couple of activities high on the kids' itinerary. A healthy balance of carrots and sticks can be tremendously motivational. Fortunately, we didn't end up needing any of the sticks, and the meal provided its own carrots.
Things nearly derailed as the kids weighed in on our order. They were not in agreement with me that the Crispy Beef Tongue belonged on our table, though they relented when I assured them that they wouldn't have to try it. I didn't really mean it, and began goading my oldest as soon as the dish hit the table. I know her palate better than she does, and was convinced that she would love the dish. I was right.
The cubes of beef had a shatterlingly light exterior, contrasting their deep, meaty flavor. Thin rounds of radish, slivers of pickled onions, and mint added prickles of flavor, biting and fresh and lovely. A sauce of horseradish that gave me some pause (my kids are still developing their tolerance for spicy foods) but proved clean and restrained, with just enough of a bite to speak to its ingredients. It was an interpretation I'd like to see more of. The kid must have agreed, as she ate far more than her share, and I was happy to let her.
The youngest found her muse in a bowl of whole, lightly fried okra. Sheathed in a thin tempura batter, the pods retained a nice crunch, with barely a trace of internal viscosity (how's that for vegetable diplomacy?). She didn't have much use for the anchovy vinaigrette with which they were served, preferring to crunch them down whole, plain, and in volume. I got a couple, and the sharp dressing with its sneaky savory undercurrent (anchovies are a beautiful sort of magic, like MSG with fins) paired perfectly with the slightly sweet and earthy okra.
Similarly delicious was an assortment of crudites - perfect little gems of carrots, parsnips, radishes, asparagus, and other vegetables - served with a small jar of bagna cauda. Lovely pale green with a slightly airy texture, this was not the heavy emulsion of fish and oil I was expecting, but a light and lithe dip that matched bright and savory flavors evenly and impressively. It was addictive and seductive, causing my daughter to capture the jar from the grip of the server, the crudites gone and he mistakenly thinking we had no more use for the stuff inside. I can now add bagna cauda to the algebra of "Don't eat X with your fingers," though I didn't really mean it this time.
The rest of the dishes were similarly well received; a fricassee of summer vegetables, served with a broth of coconut milk and onions, was prized over the Pork Brisket with black garlic, eggplant and pepper relish. Both were delicious, but the vegetable treatment was so lively and exciting that the pork, delicious though its heady, tart, and spicy condiments were, didn't stand a chance.
We hadn't expected Foreign & Domestic to have a kids menu. They don't. They do, however, cater to children with an offering of macaroni and cheese, an off-menu allowance recommended by our waiter after we'd placed our order. We deliberated for a moment, wondering if we'd need it. The kids seemed in a good mood, and mostly positive about our order, and we were prepared to risk it. "Never hurts to have a safety net," opined our server. Sage advice. We took it, though we needn't have. The kids were so focused on eating the "grown up food" that the mac and cheese went entirely untouched. Well, I snagged a few bites. It was good. Their "real menu" was better, and the kids agreed.
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This may well prove to be my favorite DEFCON Dining experience of all time. It stands in my mind as a shift in paradigm, a change in the attitudes of my children. Like I said, I'd put the carrots and sticks out there bluntly - dessert on one end, no swimming on the other - but they didn't bear repeating. The kids had a genuinely good time. Foreign & Domestic is a bright, relaxed, and convivial place, and I'm sure that went a long way. A hushed, carpeted dining room with high backed chairs and snooty waiters may have led to a different outcome, regardless of the food.
As it was, they were engaged and attentive. Not everyone liked everything, but no one was negative about anything. The whole experience was like a delicious breath of fresh air. I'm not going to fool myself into thinking that we can stand down; there will be battles won and lost. I am convinced, though, that the kids are starting to see these exercises less as battles in the first place, and that's the first step to winning the war.