Behold, the Miraculous Powers of the Cookie, or DEFCON Dining: Paulie's

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.

For the longest time, we were hesitant to go to Paulie's. Looking back, I'm not entirely sure why that was the case. My wife and I were talking about it just the other day, and the best answer we could settle on is the fact that Paulie's felt a bit too adult for us. In a way, something about the austerity of the interior lent it more gravitas than many much more reserved joints. There was a quiet about it, and we didn't want to ruin that for the rest of the diners. Boy, are we glad we got over that. The cookies sure helped.

These days, my kids are just as apt to request Paulie's as any of our other family favorites, if not more. Given the relatively recent changes there, including one of the city's finer coffee services, along with fresh, house-made pastas, we're happy to oblige.

For our older daughter, the food itself is enough of a lure to guarantee good behavior, if she really likes a place. For the younger one, it often takes a bit more. Cue the pastry case.

For Juliette, half the fun in eating at Paulie's is seeing what colorful, whimsical shortbread cookies are on display that day. Strike that. It's probably more like 75 percent, and I'm okay with that. I must admit a soft spot for the cookies, myself. Not only are they endlessly charming, but they are excellent examples of the form.

Having a negligible sweet tooth, I have a particular fondness for shortbread. Its rich, buttery character is the focus, with finer specimens treating sweetness almost as an afterthought. That's what grabs me about Paulie's cookies. They walk that line expertly, with flawless texture to boot. Seemingly held together by nothing other than will, they somehow also manage to avoid sandiness, crumbling/melting into a savory/sweet bite that's something like a Möbius strip of sublimation. I'm sure I'm describing that all wrong. Suffice it to say, they're very, very good shortbread cookies.

The standing order is that if the kids finish their dinners, or an appropriate portion thereof, and behave with a reasonable level of decorum, they get to choose a cookie. For the older girl, who sticks with chocolate chip, this is never a problem. The younger one often takes a bit of reminding, and a few return trips to the pastry case, scoping out her prospective prize, to seal the deal.

As for the rest of the food, it's usually excellent. Our last trip featured bucatini in my Amatriciana (perfectly compiled, with just the right balance of acid, heat and fatty richness) overcooked just enough to make me sad about it. As it was, the dish was still delicious, even more so paired with a glass of Scarpetta Barbera del Monferrato recommended by the guy at the counter. He was eager to please with his pairings, and the wine's light sweetness and balanced acidity cutting through the fattiness of the sauce's pork, while providing supporting richness through a slightly dusky fruitiness.

My wife's conchiglie with a sage and mushroom sauce was impeccable. The kids chose Fettucine Alfredo (the near constant request of a slightly fussy six-year-old) and a simple Spaghetti with Marinara. Both were similarly excellent, the former greaseless and deceptively light, the later bright and inviting, and deceptively deep of flavor.

When asked how our meal was going, I answered truthfully, and was met with sincere apologies and an assurance that it would be better next time. I thoroughly believed it, and ordered a round of coffees, one chocolate chip and one shortbread cookie. We'll be back to check on the pasta, and I'm sure it will be excellent.

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Nicholas L. Hall is a husband and father who earns his keep playing a video game that controls the U.S. power grid. He also writes for the Houston Press about food, booze and music, in an attempt to keep the demons at bay. When he's not busy keeping your lights on, he can usually be found making various messes in the kitchen, with apologies to his wife.
Contact: Nicholas L. Hall