Waiter! More Crayons

Is fine dining possible with kids? Dear Dara finds out.

Dear Dara,

I would love to see an article about fine family dining: upscale(-ish) restaurants that are good places to take kids, provided they are well-behaved. My girls are four and seven and have pretty adventurous taste in food. We live in south Minneapolis and took them to Craftsman last spring. Craftsman turns out to have an actual children's menu, which is a bonus because it makes it cheaper to feed them. Last night we took them to Café Levain, which has no children's menu, but they will bring a mug full of crayons and let your kid color on the paper tablecloth.

I would love to know about other interesting restaurants in Minneapolis and St. Paul that are kid-friendly to some degree. I'm particularly interested in places willing to serve a half-size (and presumably half-price) regular entree, since my kids would honestly prefer the adult items but can't eat anywhere near a whole order (and yet aren't cooperative enough to want the same thing, which would make it easy).

Ichiban's floating sushi can be boatloads of fun for kids
Fred Petters
Ichiban's floating sushi can be boatloads of fun for kids

Also, both my girls love sushi and would eat it daily if I were willing to finance it. However, sushi restaurants are hard because it takes so long for everything to come. I have thought about Ichiban's all-you-can-eat sushi buffet, but Kiera (the four-year-old) is much more into sashimi than sushi, and I've heard that Ichiban gets really cranky if you disassemble your nigiri and only eat the fish part.

I've seen other pint-size sushi fanatics, and there was another family with young kids in Levain last night. So clearly I'm not the only parent in town with adventurous (and well-behaved) young eaters.

Thanks,

Naomi in Minneapolis

Dear Naomi,

This is a hot issue among today's parents: How can adults who spent their 20s enjoying a life of exciting dining keep it up once they've welcomed heirs into their lives? Most of the letters I get along these lines hit on three basic points: One, parents want to respect the basic kidness of their kids and not expect unreasonable things from them. Two, they don't want to eat dreck. Three, they don't want to go bankrupt.

Last week I heard from Steve in Northfield who needed a fine-dining destination for a group that included three boys, ages three to seven. I probably direct at least one set of parents with an infant to the Minneapolis Fuji-Ya every month, because the little rice-paper-screened tatami rooms where you sit on the floor are perfect places for nursing privacy, for keeping a sleeping baby in a car seat out of traffic, and for little crawlers to be happily contained in a clean place. (There are only two tatami rooms, so you must reserve them, especially on weekend nights. Fuji-Ya: 600 W. Lake St., Minneapolis, 612.871.4055; www.fujiyasushi.com.)

However, while I've given private answers to this question fairly often, I've been reluctant to go into it too much in print. After all, children are individuals: Some seven-year-old girls have better restaurant manners than some 22-year-old men, and some little boys find that a moment without running, jumping, or climbing is a moment to be repented of, immediately, with vengeance. That said, here's a quick list of a dozen good options when you've got both high standards and the ability to recite Goodnight Moon backward.

Ichiban

Oddly enough, I was just at Ichiban last week, checking out the biggest sushi bargain in the Twin Cities. For $29, or $12 for kids 10 and under, you can sit at Ichiban's sushi bar and pluck all the sushi you want from little boats that float by on a little rushing river. (It's even more of a bargain between 4:30 and 6:00 p.m., when adults eat at the early-bird-special price of $25.) I went, half-expecting some limit on all this—a timer, some kind of scale and ejector seat strategically placed under your chair—but no, it really is an all-you-can-eat sushi bonanza.

It's even more of a wear-elastic-slacks dinner because each diner is also entitled to a bowl of miso soup and a big, hot tray of vegetable, chicken, or shrimp tempura, and gyoza dumplings, and chicken wings. The little boats also boast all-you-can-eat edamame, seaweed salad, octopus salad, marinated tofu or pickled squash salad, and other Japanese treats.

As for the sushi? It wasn't the best I've ever had, but it was far from the worst. I can't vouch for every night, but the night I was there I saw lots of California rolls, a few other tuna rolls, and some tuna nigiri. There were three varieties of salmon: smoked, fresh, and a salty lox-cure, all of which appeared as nigiri (those fingers of fish on pads of rice), with the smoked salmon also appearing in a cream-cheese roll.

Other abundant choices: tamago (sweet rice-wine omelet), ebi (big cooked shrimp), and octopus, squid, and unagi (grilled eel in a sweet sauce). A few items made brief appearances and were pounced on immediately by connoisseurs: one delicious slice of white tuna and a few rolls topped with ikura, those big globes of salty orange salmon roe.

Rumors you've heard notwithstanding, I found the service at Ichiban to be absurdly generous and accommodating. My two servers just kept bringing and bringing food. The tempura was hot and light, the gyoza hot and meaty, the beer cold.

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