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.

I got the idea that they were being so nice to me because I was being nice to them—there were two groups of men being completely rude to the women waiting on them when I was there. Servers may put up with a lot at Ichiban, which could lead to bouts of crankiness. I don't know. I do know that this spot won't be for everyone. Delicacy and rarity aren't words I'd use to describe this sushi, but your kids won't have to wait one nanosecond for food. If you've got sushi-loving tots, you should check it out.

Ichiban Japanese Steak House & Sushi Bar

1333 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis
612.339.0540, www.ichiban.ca

Mysore Café

Speaking of buffets, the newish vegetarian Indian spot in Uptown is now doing both a Friday and Saturday night dinner buffet, which costs $11.99 for adults and $4.99 for kids.

I've been on the fence about this place since it opened, because I find some of the dishes thrilling, like the pungent, winy, hot-and-sour rasam soup, while others seem greasy, reheated, and elderly. That said, the dinner buffet is a great choice when you're trying to feed yourself and your kids on a budget in south Minneapolis.

I love the masala dosa that comes complimentary with every meal. This thin, crisp crepe, wrapped around a filling of savory, lightly spiced mashed potatoes, is delightful comfort food. The restaurant's cashew-flecked lemon basmati rice is light and graceful. The dal makheni, a buttery black lentil stew, is earthy and substantial, and two amply spiced South Indian specialties with a texture somewhere between polenta and porridge, here called pongal and avail, were delicious. Sometimes there's something with chickpeas that looks like it was left over from the Clinton administration—so leave that sitting there, okay?

You'll also find fruit, salad, raita, four sorts of chutney, rice pudding, and a whole host of pappadum, breads like fresh fry-bread poori, and pancake-like fresh iddly available on the buffet as well. Put a Kingfisher lager on the table for Mom, and a Taj Mahal for Dad, and rejoice in the fact that if the kids reject any of the dozen healthy dishes of grains or veggies that fill out this buffet, well, they weren't slaved over by you.

Mysore Café

2819 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis, 612.871.1110

20.21

The fine-dining splurge I finally directed Steven in Northfield to, with his three boys under seven, was the opulent Sunday brunch buffet at Wolfgang Puck's 20.21 at the Walker Art Center. Reservations are a must for this luxurious event ($28 for adults, $14 for kids 12 and under.) What's so great about it? Everything. Fine china, complimentary Champagne or Bellinis for the adults, countless plush, chef-driven brunch treats for sophisticates (ricotta-stuffed brioche French toast, fluffy mascarpone and chive scrambled eggs, exquisite fresh-baked breakfast pastries), and things that are not scary for the easily frightened (bacon, eggs, potatoes). If that's not enough, the Walker's sculpture garden is a short hop away, perfect for running, jumping, climbing, and burning off steam, or for photo opportunities before or after the event.

20.21 Restaurant & Bar

Walker Art Center, 1750 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis,
612.253.3410, www.wolfgangpuck.com

Big Bowl

Alas, Naomi, one of the things you seek, namely adult entrees in smaller, less expensive portions, doesn't much exist in the Twin Cities—though it does at the three Big Bowl locations. This is a fairly new development, and a laudable one.

"We used to have a mac-and-cheese and chicken nugget menu," Derek Gato, Big Bowl's local supervisor, told me, "but we've evolved to a more adult, healthier version. We find that nowadays parents are trying to open kids' eyes to different ways of eating, so we went with that."

That means that the dozen-item kids' menu offers a kid-size chicken pad thai ($5.95), a kid-size beef and broccoli ($5.95), and a special kids-only meal fashioned from some of the greatest hits off the regular appetizer menu, like the platter of chicken satays with spicy peanut dipping sauce, and chicken pot stickers ($4.95). All the Big Bowl kids' meals come with a complimentary beverage, which can be the house-made, fresh-squeezed lemonade. They put crayons on the table and hand out kid chopsticks, too.

I visited the Galleria Big Bowl one recent Saturday night (call ahead to put your name on the list, unless you're insane), and service was quick as lightning and all-out friendly. I was delighted to find that they're using local Minnesota pork in all their pork dishes. The barbecue pork fried rice, a huge portion of sweet lacquered pork tenderloin served on an admirably greaseless but savory fried rice ($12.95) was really good, and the spicy sesame peanut noodles ($3.95) were excellent, too, with weighty wheat noodles amply spiced with a clingy, savory sauce.

Big Bowl 

In the Galleria, 3669 Galleria, Edina, 952.928.7888; at Rosedal, 1705 Highway 36 West, Rosevill, 651.636.7173; and at Ridgedale, 952.797.9888,www.bigbowl.com

California Café and Napa Valley Grille

I raved about the new chef, Matthew Fogarty, who took over these sister restaurants at the Mall of America recently. It turns out that the excitement at these places isn't restricted to the food for adults. The Napa Valley Grille offers various three-course meals for kids priced at $6 or $8.

They start out with a little espresso cup of peanut butter with celery sticks and carrot sticks. Hot entrees can be as simple as a quesadilla with fries ($6) or as complex as pasta Alfredo with chicken or a grilled chicken breast with mashed potatoes and green beans ($8). Dessert is a special, house-made ice-cream-cookie sandwich. The Napa Valley Grille even has Etch-a-Sketches and one DVD player they lend out to tables.

Meanwhile, one floor up, the California Café puts together kids'-meal bento boxes for $6.95, which include the kid's choice of three courses (salad or veggie snack; an entree such as angel hair pasta, grilled cheese, cheeseburger, chicken fingers, or baby back ribs; fresh fruit; and a fresh lemonade, milk, or juice). Of course, you can have that bento box out on the California Café patio, which overlooks the MOA roller coasters. If that isn't enough, right now the California Café is even running a Toddler Tuesday promotion, during which toddlers eat free.

Napa Valley Grille

Mall of America, 2nd Floor, Bloomington, 952.858.9934, www.napavalleygrille.com; California Café, Mall of America, 3rd Floor, Bloomington,612.854.2233, www.californiacafe.com

Well, Naomi, Steven, everybody, we've run out of room. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention high-living dining-with-kids hall-of-famers like Punch Pizza; the sister upscale diners of the Highland Grill, Edina Grill, and Longfellow Grill; and Broders' Pasta Bar (where 10-and-unders eat free on Mondays before 6:30 p.m. and can always have a child-size portion of their exquisite pasta Bolognese for $5.95).

Ooh, but don't forget St. Paul's opulent though budget-friendly Mai Village, with its ornate interior pagoda and adorable bridge over a koi-filled pond. At Edina's Salut Bar Americain there's a limited but very inexpensive $2.95 entree-and-beverage menu that encourages parents to spend even more on cocktails and oysters. And at Solera, the downtown Minneapolis Spanish tapas bar, a gourmet-minded family could have a world-class meal by, say, the two adults opting for the $29 eight-course tasting menu, and adding a few kid-friendly tapas to the spread, like ham and cheese croquettas or fried potatoes. I did this tasting menu a few months ago, and found the service to be fast-food fast, but the food itself to still be as good as anything you'd find in Barcelona.

Oh well, there are probably some I've left out, too, but this should give you something to do this winter. Drop me a line when it's time for a roundup of the best restaurants with large, empty parking lots in which to practice for a driver's license. 

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