Out For Exotic Food In France

PARIS -- The two 12-year-olds wouldn't even look at the children's menu. They airily ordered pate followed by terrine of rabbit.

The oh-so-attentive waiter raised an eyebrow but didn't say a word. The girls, faces shining and dressed in their version of high fashion -- skirts and high-heeled sandals, were too busy trying on their adult persona to notice.

It was one of those moments I wanted to hold onto forever.

We were sitting at a round table covered by a snowy white cloth at Bofinger, one of Paris' most historic and venerated restaurants. All around us people were talking in French. No one minded my brood's presence. In fact, there were children at several other tables.

After a week in France, the kids -- my 12-year-old daughter Reggie, her best friend Emily Thomas and even 7-year-old Melanie -- seemed perfectly at home in such august surroundings. On the way in, they'd chatted with the oyster shuckers, watching them work amid the display of iced shellfish outside the front door. They'd oohed and aahed over the famous domed stained-glass ceiling. They were interested in everything, even the old-fashioned wall stencils and light fixtures. No one was sulking. No one was fighting.

Watching them, I realized with a rush everything that's wonderful about traveling with children -- the discovery, the adventure, the fun of seeing them enter and grow comfortable in a different world for the first time. I enjoyed my dinner at my favorite Paris restaurant even more because of them.

Bofinger, for its part, did all it could to make our junior gourmands welcome -- from the ``menu enfant'' to the waiter's smiles and solicitous service. Wherever we were during our two weeks in France, in small towns as well as in Paris, I was pleasantly surprised at how accommodating restaurants were.

American restaurants could take a few lessons. At Bofinger, for example, Melanie had her choice of a juicy hamburger and frites, salmon or duck -- a lot better than chicken fingers, she said. She capped her meal with an elegant and oh-so-chocolatey mousse.

In one restaurant in the tiny village of Mersault in the heart of the Burgundy wine country, Melanie turned cartwheels with two French children in the garden adjacent to the vineyards while we made our way through a long French lunch. Those at the surrounding tables smiled when she wandered in for a handful of frites, as did her French playmates.

At other restaurants, waiters were glad to let the girls share portions or provide a ``petite'' portion for Melanie when I asked. As a result, the children literally ate their way across France -- chocolate croissants for breakfast (which they liked to purchase themselves from the nearest boulanger ), ham sandwiches on crusty French baguettes for lunch and a different gourmet meal every night -- seared duck smothered in blackberry sauce, boeuf Bourguignon or steak with mustard. They routinely ordered Orangina, a French soft drink now available in the U.S. at every turn.

Even shopping for groceries was an adventure -- so many varieties of saucissons and breakfast cereal, chocolate mousse and flan instead of pudding, cheese, cornichon pickles and seasoned olives.

One day at the weekly market at the tiny river town of Verdon Sur Doub, they surveyed the dozens of cheeses with amazement. We opted for two local just-made varieties.

They'd carefully consider all of the choices for an afternoon snack -- chocolate eclair, strawberry tarte napoleon. And they were charmed when the pastries were handed to them in a box tied with a ribbon.

Their adventure in eating started our first night in France: Our intrepid eaters ordered snails (escargots) and frog legs. They ate every bite, though they declared the frog legs had too many bones.

They tasted wine in Burgundy, and became connoisseurs of different kinds of pate -- as well as French ice cream. Banana became a special favorite.

We sampled every variety of French fast food too -- hot dogs on baguettes with grilled cheese, miniature quiche and croque monsieur, the best grilled cheese sandwich I've ever had. Of course our adventures in eating were not without gaffes. One day I mistakenly tried to order Melanie the dog's menu. The waiter laughed, explaining my mistake in French. Our lunch guest explained that so many Frenchmen bring their pooches to restaurants, they don't want them to go hungry. American restaurants should offer their kids such good food.

Another day at lunch we ordered vegetable soup only to discover it was pureed vegetables, not the chunky variety we were used to. The girls ate it anyway.

We took them to La Couple, the restaurant that once was a hangout for Hemingway and other American writers. They were entranced by the giant platters of fresh seafood being consumed with gusto at tables all around us. We didn't need much urging. Together we cracked crabs, slurped perfectly fresh oysters and mussels, and ate tiny salty shrimp in the middle of the restaurant crowded with Frenchmen. It was one of the most memorable meals of the trip. Even Melanie popped the tiny shrimp!

Frankly, these kids surprised me. I'd worried how we'd manage to survive drawn-out meals. Two-hour or longer meals are certainly not uncommon in France. But I didn't even have to entertain the kids or urge them to eat. I think they were so pleased to be treated so well -- and given the chance to make their own choices and mistakes. My role was merely to translate -- and give them permission to order exotic-selection-of-the day. Of course, it helped tremendously that there were two 12-year-olds to experiment together. Melanie tried to go along with them, but more often than not, ate frites for dinner.

Of course, everything has its limits. Our last night in Paris, they opted for Sushi -- a favorite of theirs back in America -- and ate every bit.

(c) 1998, Eileen Ogintz. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate

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