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Behind the Line: Tiny tastebuds

The Little Gourmet spotlights healthy, kid-friendly cuisine

By Lauren Kramer
April 01, 2009

Like many parents, Judy Blix was sick and tired of taking her child to restaurants that offer an array of dull, unhealthy choices for kids. The usual fare of chicken fingers or spaghetti and red sauce wasn't meeting her needs, and she determined there were many parents who shared her sentiments.

"In my town of Napa, Calif., there are a lot of adult restaurants but there are also a lot of families," she says. "We have 40 schools and 12,000 school-aged kids. It got me thinking."

Blix and her husband Tom spent last summer developing the menu and concept for their kid-friendly restaurant, The Little Gourmet, which opened in Napa last November. Tom, a restaurant industry veteran, has returned to his roots as head chef while Judy works in the front of the house.

Their 3-year-old daughter was the taste tester for the kids' menu, which features the culinary categories of France, Latin America, Asia, Italy and America. There's also an adult menu for lunch and dinner, and the restaurant carries a liquor license, which can help take the edge off a rowdy family meal.

But it's the kids' menu that takes the culinary spotlight. The dishes are playful and presented in a whimsical fashion on non-breakable plates, featuring a selection of healthy, local ingredients, some of them organic.

There's the French Fishing Boat, a halibut fillet topped with mashed potatoes adorned with a toothpick mast and French flag and served with honey baby carrots. Salmon Funny Fingers consists of salmon tenders coated with a lemon mustard sauce and served with almond slivers, mashed potatoes and vegetables, all presented in the shape of a hand. The Pepperoni Pizza Face features organic whole-wheat crust topped with homemade organic sauce and diced squash, while the Nest o' Bird's Eggs consists of hoisin glazed organic meatballs in a nest of steamed celery and carrots, served over a bed of steamed rice with diced pineapple.

"Mothers are looking at me and saying 'I can't believe my kids are eating this,'" Judy Blix says. "Certainly, we tone down the spices and don't add anything funky that kids would not enjoy. Instead, we add minimal spices to give flavor to the dish, and try and present it in a fun, creative way that will appeal to children's sensibilities."

Fun also applies to the décor.

"The restaurant is designed for kids, but not in a sugar-coated candy way," says Judy Blix. She chose orange paint for the walls and décor featuring fun prints of kids and vegetable cartoons. Skateboards hung on the walls serve as shelves and at both ends of the restaurant there are play areas stacked with toys. Music plays softly in the background and coloring place mats, high chairs and booster seats designed to look like volumes of Yellow Pages add a warm, kid-friendly ambience.

But eating at The Little Gourmet is also about culinary education, says Judy Blix.

"I want my own child to be educated on a culinary level and that's why I set up the kids' menu into different categories," she says. To reinforce that, she hired an artist to paint a globe on one wall. Inside it, five children of different nationalities hold hands, all of them wearing chef's hats.

Hungry kids tend to fill up fast on bread, so instead The Little Gourmet presents a dish of chopped vegetables with ranch dressing. On the kids' lunch menu the entrées range in price from $4.95 to $7.95 and go up to $9.95 on the dinner menu. That's higher than the usual $5 price tag for kids' items in other restaurants, and it's something the Blix team was very conscious of when they created the menu.

"We're finding parents are relieved to have healthier cuisine and more varied food options for their kids," she says. "We are a higher price point, we realize that. But people are willing to pay more for the perks and extras they're getting, and the healthier food. From a business standpoint, adult-oriented restaurants can afford to have $5 kids' items but in our case, the majority of our customers are ordering an average $6 entrée. We have to make a living."

The concept is working and even though The Little Gourmet is tucked behind a building and not visible from the street, diners large and small have flocked to the Napa restaurant.

"Parents are very excited that we're here, and we've even had tables just with adults, coming in without their kids," she says. Though they might be tempted, anyone over 12 years has to order from the adult menu. But Blix is hopeful the healthy kids' cuisine will inspire other restaurants to change their fare and present children with some new, innovative options in the future.

 

Contributing Editor Lauren Kramer lives in British Columbia

 

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