My three-and-a-half-year-old continues to not eat—though we have had some luck with buttered noodles lately and the story is in the running to be included in the next Best Food Writing anthology, which is a silver lining. Plus, his little sister continues to eat everything, from cherries to blue cheese to spicy flank steak, so my ego feels a little better. (Okay yes, she also eats chalk, stickers, and, on occasion, large rocks, but such is the omnivore dilemma of the average American fifteen-month-old.) If your own little ones are at a more manageable age, there are still a few seats left at the Junior Gourmet Club’s next dinner. It’s an event dedicated to letting parents and kids practice their nicer dining skills in a fancy but stress-less environment.
This series is the brainchild of Bill Summerville, La Belle Vie’s sommelier, GM, and part-owner, who works with the various restaurants that host and cook for it. The one this Wednesday night is at Heartland, the upper Midwest’s standard-bearer for local nose-to-tail eating. Chef Lenny Russo has dreamed up a menu that is brilliant in the way it appeals to both children and adults: The first course, for instance, will be a summer melon salad with fresh mint, toasted pecans, and wildflower honey crème fraîche paired with fresh watermelon soda—yes, it’s a food-and-beverage pairing for the scooter set. There’s a grass-fed local cheeseburger with plum ketchup paired with organic local chocolate milk, and a strawberry ice cream float with fresh whipped cream and Michigan cherry syrup. (If there was a stand-alone restaurant that sold only those three menu items, I predict it would be a raving success.)
“I kind of had to be talked into it,” admitted Russo, when I talked to him on the phone. “I don’t have kids, I don’t have a kids’ menu, and I’m not exactly Mr. Rogers. I asked Bill: Are you sure you want to bring kids in here? But it’s part of my mission. I talk to a lot of college-age students to tell them: Try and eat heirloom crops and heritage breeds. Try to eat things that are ripe and taste good. If it tastes better, that’s nature’s way of telling you it’s nutritionally superior. The reason they have to put a lot of salt and sugar and fat into processed foods is because they taste pretty awful without those. So I’m making the kids cheeseburgers because I don’t want to scare them, but they’ll be on flaxseed buns that we make here, so they’ll get their Omega-3s, and hopefully both the parents and the kids will walk out of here thinking: Wow, I really dig food that’s good.” Organic dairy farmers Dave and Florence Minar, of Cedar Summit, will also be on hand to, in Russo’s words, “talk about what it’s like to have a farm where cows eat grass and stuff.”
The event costs $35 per person and kicks off with an hors d’ouevre and beverage reception, after which you get your three-course meal. Summerville tells me that most of the previous events have sold out, but there are still about 10 spots left for this one. “The whole goal is to have families bonding at the table, and to plant the seeds of the idea that food is important to our health, the environment, and the economy.”
I’m going to guess that any kids whose parents shell out $35 for organic cheeseburgers in a fine-dining dining room are going to have planted that seed pretty well on their own, but it does seem like a brilliant way to let kids get some restaurant practice in a stress-free way: Look, other kids are sitting on their bottoms in chairs! See! Look, other kids are using open cups! (Open cups, for you non-parents in the room, are different from sippy cups and straw cups, which are today’s common way of keeping children and carpets in harmony.) Summerville tells me that most of the parents who do this opt for their own non-nonalcoholic wine flights, so don’t think this has to be homework for the parents. Gather your friends! Meet grandma for dinner—it’s not an early bird special, it’s getting you out in time for bath time. The event is designed for kids aged 5 to 12, though Summerville tells me four-year-olds have been known to make it through in one piece.
If you want to go to this one but the scheduling doesn’t work, call La Belle Vie and get on the mailing list. There’s a late-summer barbecue scheduled on the lawn at La Belle Vie that sounds like it should be epic. Tim McKee, chef of La Belle Vie, and all his crew will be manning grills outside and a couple of other local food luminaries—who I’m not at liberty to spill the beans about—are scheduled to be there as well.
1806 Saint Clair Ave., St. Paul
La Belle Vie
510 Groveland Ave., Mpls.