Kids Rule

Restaurant critic Andrea Strong offers two suggestions for kid-friendly restaurants in the New York City area.

We live in a quite demanding world (this I am sure comes as a shock to no one), where most of us are juggling career, family, and friends, filling up our plates with way more than we can "eat." Often the thing that winds up being sacrificed is time together in the kitchen and at the family table. What I appreciated about last night's Top Chef episode was the reminder of the joy it can be to cook with kids. It gets them involved, gives them confidence, and the passion for a potential career (I know many chefs who fell in love with cooking by learning from their mothers, grandmothers and yes, fathers, too), and it creates a bond between parent and child, and a time for just being together and enjoying each other and then sitting down to a meal together at home. I think that's so valuable. I am not saying it has to happen every night; life's responsibilities may not make that an option, but wouldn't it be nice to have it happen every Sunday or on weekends?

I am not a parent (though I hope to be one someday), so I may be talking out of school here, but I know some of my fondest memories as a kid involved food -- recipes my parents, who were divorced, made for us every night of the week. My mom was working during the day and going to school at night and yet she made time to cook for us and eat dinner with us every night. My dad, a cancer surgeon who had us several nights a week and lived in Manhattan, took us out to dinner some nights, but on weekends we cooked together. His repertoire of recipes was small, but I will never have omelets like the ones he made us for breakfast (fluffy and stuffed with cheese), or chicken cutlets better than the ones we made together for dinner in the tiny windowless kitchen of his small one bedroom apartment.I loved last night's episode because it presented real life challenges that real people deal with on a daily (or nightly) basis -- making quick and easy nutritional meals for a family. It also showed the chefs' softer sides. I loved seeing them being so patient and gentle with the kids, teaching and coaching them, encouraging them and laughing with them. I think it was a tough challenge in that the budget was $10, but it also showed how far you can stretch the dollar, as demonstrated by all the chefs, but most impressively by Spike who made a three-course meal from his ten spot.

This was a challenge that also gave us a chance to see who these chefs are in real life. We learned that Antonia is a single mom, that Nikki was raised by a single parent, that Richard is ready to make babies (I've heard his wife is pregnant at the moment, so congrats are in order), and that Mark and his lady have vegetarian curry when they're home together at night. It was sweet to see beyond the competitor and into the person, and see them relax and unwind with the kids in the kitchen. I also enjoyed seeing Tom (who is a father himself) interact with the kids, and I loved his line about sweating the onions -- "Did you put them on a treadmill to make them sweat?" But the Quote of the Show goes to Dale's cooking partner Manuel who answered Tom's question, "What do you like about cooking," quite honestly and simply: "Eating!"

In terms of what the chefs put out for the kids and judges to eat, I thought they did a good job of sticking to the simple, nutritious, and delicious guidelines, even the three on the chopping block at the end of the night. That was a tough call, because I do think Steph was trying to do something creative and interesting but it backfired, and Lisa's dish was also impressive in composition but lacked seasoning (again, why are people getting hung up on this basic an issue?). Mark's curry wasn't all that attractive, and apparently it was too sweet, but I didn't mind that he offered a vegetarian option for kids. It's OK for them to skip protein in one meal, especially when he's serving sweet potatoes that are packed with nutrients. But I suppose the fact that it also wasn't all that tasty was sort of an issue. It was a tough call at Judges' Table and they made the decision they needed to make, but it was hard to see Mark go. He was a good competitor and always added a good laugh, which is important.It's sort of apropos that this week's challenge focused on offering kids healthier eating options because two popular restaurants in New York City -- Landmarc and Fig & Olive -- have actually changed their kids' menus this week. While these restaurants have taken measures to make their kids' menus more healthful -- which is great for overworked parents -- there's always the one place you can make sure your kid is eating right. It's your very own kitchen. As we saw last night, it doesn't have to be anything fancy -- grab one pot, a chicken and some veggies, or some whole-wheat noodles, vegetables, chicken and a pan, and you'll have a great dinner and make some memories along the way.

Landmarc (two locations): Time Warner Center, 212-823-6123, and at 179 West Broadway in Tribeca, 212-343-3883
Landmarc is a sexy urban New York bistro owned chef Marc Murphy and his wife Pam Schein Murphy, who have two kids of their own. Their restaurants are a tale of two dining experiences. You'll find lines of strollers parked outside in the early dinner hours, and once 8 p.m. rolls around, it's all "adults." Marc's kids' menu and kid-friendly staff have truly made this a destination for New York families, and he felt a sense of responsibility to the kids eating there several times a week. So he took the fries off the kids' menu and added healthier options and also a few dishes to give kids the chance to skip their noodles and cheese in favor of "real people" food.

While the Pigs in a Blanket are still on there (and I have to admit, I order them myself because who can resist a pig in a blanket?), along with cheesy spaghetti pie, grilled cheese and peanut butter and jelly on whole wheat bread, he's added green eggs and ham, an English muffin pizza (with fresh mozzarella and Parmesan), celery and carrot sticks with hummus and pita, a petit filet mignon with green beans, grilled lamb chops with orzo and salad, and baked chicken fingers. And the fries are still on the regular adult menu, just in case. Fig & Olive (three locations): 8 Lexington Avenue (between 62nd & 63rd St.), 212-207-4555; 420 West 13th Street (between Ninth Ave. & Washington St.), 212- 924-1200; 10 East 52nd Street (between Fifth & Madison Ave), 212-319 2002
Fig & Olive restaurants are lovely sunny Mediterranean-inspired restaurants that are popular with titans of industry (if they even exist anymore), ladies who lunch, sexy girls in Louboutins, and families-of-four alike. They've just changed their children's menu. It still includes kid-friendly eats like Mac and Cheese with Baked Chicken Tenders, Penne with Tomato Sauce and Mozzarella with chicken tenders, Mini Pizzas, Grilled Cheese Panini served with oven roasted potatoes or mixed greens, Scrambled Eggs with Mozzarella Cheese served with fresh fruit and Mini Hamburgers served with oven roasted potatoes, the ingredients are organic. They are also offering a full line of Tasty Tasty Baby™ Organic Baby Food -- Life's A Peach™, Organic Peach Puree, Peas on Earth™, Organic Sweet Pea, Brown Rice Puree with Mint, and Mama Mia™, Organic Squash Puree with Zucchini, Quinoa Pasta & parmesan.

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