DEFCON Dining: Feast

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As we mounted the steps to the restaurant, my five-year-old began to have a meltdown. This was not good. We had been anticipating DEFCON 5, and had chosen a restaurant accordingly. She had left her hair-band behind, it seemed, and she was not going to be quiet about it. Sirens blared; my hand hovered over the red button.

As the valet drove off, I tried to calm her down, beseechingly asking my wife if she might have something -- anything -- in her purse with which I could put the girl's hair up. A quick search turned up nothing, and I turned to bribes. The hostess was starting to eye us through the windows in the door, wondering if we she was going to have to deal with this rag-tag band of crying kids and harried, frantic parents. I offered my blackberry as condolence, its sole Windows 95 era brick-breaking game my last gambit in the war for a decent meal.

She took the bait, sniffled and wiped her nose on her sleeve, and we were in the door. The hostess seemed less than thrilled to see us, eyeing the still quietly snuffling child suspiciously. I smiled with what I hoped was a look of reassurance on my face, and half promised/half hoped: "She'll be fine now." She seemed convinced; her expression changing to one of warmth, and she showed us to our table.

We had decided semi-last minute to go to dinner for the last night of Houston Restaurant Weeks, and Feast was our destination. In a show of gratitude for the slightly ridiculous amount of work I had done in recent weeks, my boss had told me to take the family out to dinner. I figured a HRW meal was a pretty good option. I'd sent my wife a link to the HRW website, pointing out a few promising options, and she'd responded, almost immediately, "Feast."

We'd taken the kids to Feast once before, and it had gone pretty well. Feast is, in many ways, a surprisingly kid-friendly place. The food centers around comforting flavors and textures, despite the restaurant's reputation as a bastion of the fifth quarter, and the desserts are almost bribery enough to extract good behavior through the preceding courses. The mood is also pretty casual, with a rough-hewn and rustic ambiance joining the dark woods to create a sense of easy familiarity.

No sooner had we taken our seats and placed drink orders, though, than my older daughter started complaining about the disparity of Blackberry allowances. She wanted her turn, but I wasn't about to pull the tantrum-preventing rug out from under the young one just yet. Instead, I conspiratorially passed a menu to her, explaining that she and her sister were going to share a three-course meal from a special menu, and that she was going to do the picking.

I'm fortunate in that my older daughter really likes to eat. She's actually pretty likely to behave as well as any adult, when presented with a good meal. She pored over the menu, asking questions, making the occasional face at the offer of snails or tongue. Eventually, she settled on tomato soup and Coq au Vin. In an unexpected gesture of magnanimity, she offered to let her sister pick dessert. Oddly, the little one opted for chocolate-espresso mousse.

My wife selected house-made beef sausage, grilled rainbow trout, and bread pudding. I opted for garlic snails on toast (partially because it was sure to elicit squeals from my kids), braised pork cheeks, and Spotted Dick.

The snails were delicious, tasting mostly of butter and garlic. This was my first time with snails, so am I right in thinking that they're mostly an exercise in texture? They were nicely meaty, with a kind of slick give under pressure, and very tender once bitten, not unlike scallops. Aside from a gentle sweetness, a slightly savory character, and a vague earthiness, I didn't pick up much flavor from the snails, themselves. The toasted bread offered great textural contrast, and I thoroughly enjoyed the dish. I couldn't convince my companions to try even a bite, and my older daughter refused my goodnight kiss that night, citing "snail breath."

The pork cheek entrée was huge, with three large chunks of tender pig meat surrounded by a savory broth, and a triangle of fried polenta jutting up from the bowl like the Rock of Gibralter. Unexpectedly, the pork reminded me of nothing so much as chili. It was deeply infused with the earthy musk of cumin, roasted red peppers offering sweetness, a scatter of mint brightening the otherwise hefty dish with a wistful freshness that offset the deep flavors admirably. I found myself wanting tortillas in which to stuff the shredded cheeks, and that's exactly what I planned for the inevitable leftovers.

I've wanted to order Spotted Dick ever since seeing King Ralph as a kid. Childish, I know, but we are the products of our pop-culture generations, are we not? Regardless, I was ordering it out of genuine interest more than a sophomoric sense of humor, fully expecting it to be delicious. It was. Lighter than I expected, the airy cake came studded with chunks of apple and raisins, surrounded by a slightly too sweet (for me) crème Anglaise whose texture was unparalleled.

The kids behaved beautifully through dinner, the older one intent on her food, the younger one intent on dessert. Three courses at Feast, even when split between two kids, is a lot of food. Everyone had some portion of their dinner packed away for later, a promising lunch for the next day at work or school. The only blight on the evening was realizing, halfway home, that we'd left the bag containing our spoils sitting on a chair. I wanted to go back for it, but my wife convinced me (certainly rightly) that it had likely been discarded by then. I still mourn for it.

On a side note, I feel obliged to tell you that, right around the time the bread service hit the table, I happened to glance out the window and spy the tear-inducing lost headband. It was right where our car had been. I nudged my wife and pointed, a wry and slightly frustrated smile tugging at the corners of my mouth. I retrieved it quietly, and slipped it over my daughter's head. She didn't even notice.

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