Executive Chef Luc Dendievel’s new Foodie-in-Training menu at Härth appeals to the junior gastronome set.
Kudos to any chef willing to counter the glut of frozen chicken nuggets, French fries and afterthoughts that seem to make up many of the children’s menus out there. And it’s all the better if well-thought- out options come with a choice of mocktails much more delicious than the juice or milk served in those cartoon-adorned plastic cups with lids and straws.
As a wine, spirits and food writer, I’m more than a little proud to say that my two kids (aged ten and eight) are adventurous eaters, happier to order small plates or split an entrée from the regular menu than order from the kids’ one. Were they born that way? Probably not. But after several trying years during the toddler stage of standing firm and serving one option for dinner, both our son and daughter began trying everything, and–surprising sometimes even to themselves–liking most of it.
Still, my younger child, Ryan, (whose favorite foods these days are sushi, oysters, clams and crab…when he can get them) is still apt to occasionally balk at a dish that’s placed in front of him–especially if an ingredient or preparation method is unfamiliar to him. So, with his sister at a sleepover, my husband Mike and I thought he would be the perfect candidate for Chef Luc’s Foodie-in-Training menu at härth restaurant at the Hilton in McLean. Launched last fall, it offers sips, starters, entrées and desserts that wouldn’t be out of place on the regular menu (in fact, some appear there as well.)
Dendievel’s dissatisfaction at the options when dining out with his two small children inspired him to offer decidedly more gourmet options. “Because I have young children and am often disappointed when I travel and take them to a restaurant, I decided I could take items from my regular menu and give them a friendly touch for kids dining with us,” he told me.
He admits that parents often seek easy finger foods for kids at restaurants, so they don’t have to spend their entire dinner prepping and cutting junior’s plate. As he points out, “the F.I.T. menu does this without a doughy pizza or a greasy fried chicken.”
To start dinner, the F.I.T menu offers two mocktails to mirror the restaurant’s cocktail options. The Apple Snap combines apple cider with fresh lemon and homemade ginger beer, while the No-Jito (Ryan’s choice) mixes white cranberry and apple juices with muddled mint, lime and soda. Resembling the cocktail in appearance (and flavor, if you can forget that it should have a shot of rum), the No-Jito was declared by Ryan “the best drink ever.”
The three of us shared several appetizers from the “regular” menu, including shrimp and grits, beet salad and the crabcake, and Ryan also ordered the Truffled Fried Mac & Cheese from the F.I.T. menu. Formed into a block, fried, and served with seasonal mushrooms and a dipping sauce, it’s a far cry from mozzarella sticks. (FYI, kiddos averse to the um, distinctive aroma and flavor of truffles may want to order the Creamy Tomato soup or a Margherita Flatbread instead.)
The F.I.T. Fish of the Day mirrors that of the adult menu (when we dined it was snapper.) Ryan ordered the roasted chicken breast, served on a (hot!) cast iron platter with seasonal vegetables, mashed potatoes and au jus. It’s often said that roasted chicken is a great litmus test for a chef and his kitchen; härth’s is succulent, juicy and über-flavorful. (It did, however, require a great deal of cutting assistance from us, as Ryan’s eight-year-old hands have not yet quite mastered the art of slicing meat. All three entrées—the chicken, aforementioned fish and the pork and veal meatballs over pasta—require some slicing and dicing. If your kids need a lot of help you may want to ask the server to bring their meals out a few minutes before your own.)
Mike and I ended the evening with härth’s signature deconstructed butterscotch pudding. Ryan noshed on one of the three F.I.T. options: Marinated Strawberries served with freshly whipped cream. While we were still dunking and dipping the decadent pound cake into the warm butterscotch sauce, he was back writing and doodling in his F.I.T. activity book. Among the word scrambles and other games designed to keep little ones from fidgeting while waiting for the food to arrive, it includes whimsical photos and fun facts about the kitchen staff. Chef Luc’s favorite color is yellow, his favorite food is fish, his favorite Superhero is Spiderman, and he learned to cook at five years old. Perhaps his F.I.T. menu will set other kids on the same path—or at least get them to realize that there is more to dining out than hamburgers and fried chicken strips. “If this helps parents to open their eyes to different options,” says Dendievel, “then I am on the right path.”
Kelly Magyarics, DWS, is a wine, spirits and lifestyle writer, and wine educator, in the Washington, D.C. area. She can be reached through her website, www.kellymagyarics.com, or on Twitter or Instagram @kmagyarics.