‘Are these little eyeballs?’’ my 8-year-old son, Graham, asks as he pops a deviled egg with smoked trout roe in his mouth. “I love them. I’m not an egg fan so that’s surprising.’’
You can say that again.
“I love it,’’ his sister, Elinor, 5, agrees, swirling a finger in her sparkling water.
This conversation is happening over dinner at Persimmon in Providence, where I’m hoping my kids will rediscover their appreciation for finer dining.
I often brought them to restaurants like this one when we lived in Paris. Their school furthered the cause, providing a three-course lunch with pâté and sole meunière on regular rotation.
Upon returning to the States, I made a concerted effort to continue their culinary education, packing bento boxes with olives and cornichons.
Their meals looked less French within a year, however — hot dogs replacing pâté, fish sticks sole meunière. They stuck to chicken fingers on nights out, Elinor dipping hers in sour cream, really dipping most food in sour cream.
Feeling guilty, I e-mailed a former teacher for menus to see what they were missing in Paris. “Graham was the best gourmet at school,’’ she replied. “I remember so well how he could enjoy everything.’’
Indeed, he was known for having seconds (minus the camembert), though students only had to take a taste. The emphasis there was on exposure, treating cuisine as a worthy cultural pursuit.
I decide to prioritize eating again in our family, putting it on par with attending plays, or visiting art museums. The focus is on the full experience in France not simply on refueling, and that’s our goal.
To fast-track the concept and reset expectations, I road-trip with Graham and Elinor to three stylish spots that serve small plates with unusual flavors and spices. What they don’t serve: separate entrees for children.
Eventide in Portland, Maine, is our first destination. Seated on benches during the lunch rush, I order potato chips as a gateway starter.
“That stuff is amazing,’’ Graham enthuses of the tartar sauce, as Elinor mumbles, “I wish I just got a kid menu.’’
Greens with pickled vegetables and fluke ceviche come next. Graham digs into the salad, remarking, “I love the pink and the white stuff,’’ then the raw fish, which he deems “sort of good.’’
“I’m probably not going to like it,’’ Elinor warns as she reaches for another chip.
“Just try it,’’ Graham encourages her.
“Hate it,’’ she reports, scowling.
Thankfully, the smoked tofu sandwich and buttermilk fried chicken bun are winners. “Yum! Mom, I don’t like it, I love it,’’ she beams.
I smile into my gruner as, no joke, “Hallelujah’’ plays from the speakers. Good wine and music are bonuses to eating where the adults want.
“I’m impressed with these kids,’’ our waitress weighs in, noting that children “usually eat the fish sandwich, plain, the burger, plain . . . and they’re all very happy about it.’’
I reward Elinor with the burger, plain, Graham with more chips, and myself with another glass of wine. We’re all very happy about it.
The mood continues at the Franklin Oyster House in Portsmouth, N.H., where an illuminated “cold beer’’ sign greets us at 4 p.m. as customers order PBR and $5 Bloody Marys.
At our high-top table, a shellfish platter provides another happy hour special. I slurp down a Fox Point with a squirt of lemon as the kids tentatively put mouths to shells.
“Oyster is not my thing,’’ Graham decides for both of them.
That’s OK because the Franklin fries and Vietnamese brussels are. “I think I’ll even put a French fry with it,’’ Elinor says, stacking in what seems to be a compliment to the sprout.
Oyster, meanwhile, gets a second chance in a slider. Graham enjoys the fried version with sriracha aioli, removing it from the brioche. “I like the bread, Graham,’’ Elinor responds. “Don’t yuck my yum.’’
This becomes a theme for her. “Mom, can you give me one of those breads? I’m falling in love with them,’’ she sighs over the baguette with coconut curry mussels.
Graham focuses on the fish, which is “delicious and a little slimy.’’
The standout, by all accounts, is the “Korean barbecue’’ lettuce and cabbage wraps, which they pile with condiments like cucumber and kimchi, free to play with their food.
“If we’re ever driving around here, we should stop,’’ Graham concludes, wiping char siu sauce from his face. Restaurants, to my delight, have regained his interest.
Down in Providence, Persimmon adds to their enthusiasm. We land on a system there, setting aside a small plate for castoffs. Admittedly, this is after Elinor spits braised greens into her cloth napkin.
As she busies herself buttering bread, treats arrive from the kitchen. The fermented carrot financier is a hit, the black truffle beignet not so much.
“I like how they’re keeping you occupied,’’ Graham observes. “How one thing comes at a time.’’
The meal continues this way with campanelle, lamb, and a caramelized scallop. “I’m keeping some [parmesan] cheese in my hand so I can eat it in the car,’’ Elinor whispers, flashing a fist.
That’s my girl.
“You’re so cute,’’ Graham laughs, chiding, “Don’t play with your food. Can we come here more often, mom?’’
Nodding, I notice a tween — the only other kid in this elegant restaurant — texting under the table. I can’t help thinking that it’s nicer to dine out while they’re still young.