DEFCON Dining: The Queen Vic Pub and Kitchen

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I despise valet parking. That's not even hyperbole. I've parked six blocks away from a restaurant and walked, rather than valet parking. Perhaps it's silly. Perhaps it's merely shame at the growing detritus of 14 combined years' worth of kids piled in my backseat. Regardless, it's one of the reasons I hadn't yet visited The Queen Vic.

Things change when you get home from work, only two days back into the swing and already feeling the grind, greeted by hungry kids clamoring to be fed. I put food dishes in their cages before I leave for work; it's not my fault if they refuse to eat their kibble. So the usual name-game began, trying to suss through our list of regulars and hopefuls, searching for the right plan.

As parents, we've learned to be dining opportunists. When the waters are pacific, we sail to nicer shores. The kids are in pretty good moods, lately, the midpoint of their winter break not yet driving them to boredom, lazy days spent reading and playing with new Christmas toys giving them little to complain about. The wife and I quickly decided to take advantage, trying one of the places on our list reserved for these moments when the kids can be trusted. The Queen Vic sprang immediately to mind.

In all honesty, the valet issue was part of that decision. I'd gotten home from work a bit early, and figured that the young hour might not yet see the place swamped, or the valets in force. I was wrong, at least about the valets. We pulled into the lot. The kids got a kick out of it when the valet opened their doors for them, escorting them out of their booster seats with a slight flourish, so I guess there's that.

Inside, we were immediately glad of our decision. Clad in dark tones and comfortingly dim lighting, the restaurant felt instantly homey. Glancing around, we noticed two other tables with kids in tow. Counting ours, there were no fewer than seven under-tens in attendance that night; all were well behaved, and obviously so. This was looking like a very good idea, indeed.

Even at the relatively early hour of six, the dining room was boisterous and loud enough to render my children's excited chatter a moot point. The source of their excitement? The tall, "fancy" Collins glass in which our youngest's milk had been delivered. Additional oohs and aahs followed the delivery of the first of a slew of small plates, ordered mostly from the Happy Hour menu. Small, silvered and saucered platters, doily-clad and dainty, the service-ware was half Thali, half tea-time, and the kids loved it.

Among that handful of small plates, the Pukka Dog and Goan Curry shone most brightly, one a surprise, the other an expectation. The dog, actually two pencil thin whips of merguez, came dressed with a slightly sweet, slightly tangy slaw of shaved peppers, carrots and cucumber. The perfect addition of heat kept it from being cloying, while a swipe of pungent, grainy mustard was just astringent enough to clear the palate after every bite.

The curry, all silky coconut milk, succulent shrimp, and admirably lumpy crab, was my anticipated favorite. It delivered on its promise. Subtlety and insistence went hand in hand, one bite offering the gentle heat of cardamom set against the nuttiness of coconut, the next punched up by a surprise of Serrano heat, its greenness offering the perfect counterpoint to the other, lush flavors.

The kids preferred the Lamb Keema Poutine, though the younger eschewed "the sauce," choosing to suss out the few naked fries for a simpler pleasure. I had expected this to be my number two, but found the dish overwhelmed by rosemary, obliterating the subtle freshness of the peas, the richness of the demi-glace, and even the gaminess of the lamb. When I found a few bites not marred by that robust, tarry flavor, I could see where the dish was going. If someone tells me it's not always like that, I'll gladly give it another go.

For the kids, the other, utterly unsurprising favorite was the simple side of naan we ordered to swipe up all the curry. (We also got The Queen's Curry. Though the egg itself, dry and characterless, failed to impress, its bath of cumin-musked curry was earthy deliciousness, its sly heat climbing slowly up the throat like a forgotten ember). The kids tore through an order in short, making me glad of our helpful waiter's recommendation of a second, swiping the naan through their surprisingly good bowl of tomato soup, intriguingly spiced and brightly acidic.

I've said it before, and will continue to say it. Small plates are the way to go when dining out with kids, particularly if yours are adventurous eaters, or if you're trying to groom them in that direction. Small plates solve a few problems at once. Variety (almost) ensures that everyone will be happy with something, and it helps alleviate boredom, too. We've learned that it's particularly helpful to order a bunch of small plates, but in waves. That way, as the kids are finishing their few bites of the first set of dishes, you know that more plates are on the way, bringing new conversation and attention. Kids have insanely short attention spans; work with them, not against them.

In the end, we all decided that we'd come back, and gladly. The little one announced that it would be for the bread, only, but still. The older one enthusiastically gave her meal a 9 3/4 out of a possible ten, but she's always been the more enthusiastic diner. Either way, The Queen Vic has definitely earned a spot in our regular DEFCON rotation, even with the valet. Maybe we'll see you there soon, with your kids in tow.

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