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How to Train a Baby Gourmet

My wife and I took our son Lucas out for his first fancy French dinner the other night.

He especially liked the diced, marinated Norwegian salmon served on a thin slice of raw potato and topped with caviar. But he was also enthusiastic about andouillette de la mer (seafood sausage) gobbled up some potato risotto, had a bite or two of chicken in a shallot and vinegar sauce and seemed positively transported by his first taste of creme brulee.

I’m not sure just which dish Lucas liked best, though, because he couldn’t quite articulate his preferences.

He’s only 9 months old.

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He doesn’t even walk--which might have been a blessing. He spent 90 minutes sitting in his chair--one of those gadgets that clips on to the side of the table--happily eating whatever the chef put in front of him. Then, when he appeared to grow bored (or tired), we took him out of the chair and let him “cruise” around the safely locked wine display case across from our table while I walked alongside, as guide (for him) and protector (for the other diners).

Some friends think we were crazy to take so young a child to a nice restaurant. Maybe. Lucas didn’t seem to think so.

We chose the restaurant carefully. We picked Citrus because we think it has the best food in town and because, unlike many French restaurants, it’s very casual. If Lucas happened to drop his silverware on the floor, dribble his orange juice on the tablecloth or squeal aloud a time or two--all of which he did within 10 minutes of our arrival--we knew the waiters wouldn’t be scandalized. More important, we knew that chef/owner Michel Richard would be pleased that we had chosen his restaurant for Lucas’ gastronomic debut.

Sure enough, Michel beamed throughout, checked on Lucas’ progress after every course and made two dishes especially for him--the potato risotto and the diced salmon (we also had the salmon but since we have teeth, ours was sliced, not diced).

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This wasn’t actually Lucas’ first visit to a fine restaurant. He’s been to Patina, to Pazzia and to Primi. He was younger then, and slept through the meals. But more recently we took him for Saturday lunch at Fennel, as a (successful) test run for Citrus.

Before Lucas was born, Lucy and I ate out four or five nights a week. We’ve continued to eat out two or three nights a week, but at home we first put Lucas in a Sassy seat on the floor between us; later, we put him in a high chair. At six months we fed him chopped, ground and mashed versions of whatever we were eating. He got used to eating with us, to eating off a plate and from a fork, and to drinking from a glass--however sloppily and uncertainly--and he developed an early preference for real food.

Lucas usually starts a meal with formula or a jar of baby food, but the instant we begin to eat, he loses all interest in what he has and wants what we’re eating--swordfish, tuna, chicken, pasta, broccoli, lentils, beets, French bread, a fresh peach, watermelon, whatever. A few weeks ago he even managed to gum several bites of pastrami into submission at the Stage Deli.

So I wasn’t terribly worried about taking Lucas to a nice restaurant; he eats well wherever he is, and he’s very well-behaved. I figured that if he did make a fuss at Citrus, we’d just apologize, pay our check and make a quick exit.

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But we spent two and a half hours in the restaurant, and while he did drop, spill and knock over several things and he did squeal and yelp from time to time, he didn’t cry or scream or break anything or bother anyone (except maybe the people who had to clean the tablecloth and the floor beneath his seat).

Lucas was so good that a few days after Citrus, we took him to a local Indian restaurant. He had Tandoori chicken and garlic nan --and in the week after that he happily sampled some takeout Sichuan eggplant and returned to both Primi and Pazzia with much pleasure--and without incident. (Judging from the way he was waving his arms and banging his spoon and screeching with pleasure, the pappa al pomodoro at Pazzia is his favorite Italian dish. So far.)

Now I’m eager to take him to France, for my annual pilgrimage to three-star restaurants. I wonder if he’ll be content drinking his usual white (Chateau Similac) with his filet au bar . . . or if he’ll insist on Chateau-Grillet.


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