It is no secret that the French are good at food, and that you can get a decent meal at a reasonable price just about anywhere. Bizarrely, though, this approach doesn’t generally seem to extend to the children’s menus. When we go out as a family in France, while my husband and I are offered terrine of this and velouté of that in even the humblest restaurant, the children generally have the choice of a burger, chicken nuggets or a slice of ham.
So when I discovered that the Relais Royal in Mirepoix, Ariège was bucking the trend and offering a Menu Découverte Gustative pour Les Enfants, I thought we should give it a try.
Toby, 7 and Livi, 5, have significantly broadened their horizons food-wise since coming to France largely thanks to their fantastic school lunches but like most children they tend to prefer their food plain and ideally pizza-shaped, so I wasn’t sure what they would make of a more adventurous menu.
We started with amuse-bouches of croquettes of foie gras and crab on a bed of orange jelly topped with quails’ eggs. Toby immediately homed in on the croquettes as the most familiar-looking thing and declared they were “Quite nice – a bit like mashed potato,” entirely missing the delicate taste and buttery texture the chef had no doubt slaved over achieving but never mind – he liked them.
Meanwhile, Livi eyed the tiny dishes of crab suspiciously. “What’s this green stuff?” she asked, picking off some delicately-scattered cress. However the crab got the green light “It’s like fish” and she loved the tiny proportions of the quail’s egg.
The waiter arrived with the bread – usually the highlight of any meal for the children and excitingly, there were three types of freshly-baked roll to choose from. “You break off a little bit before you eat it, Livi,” Toby directed knowingly at his sister, very pleased with himself. “Ow! Why is it hot?”
Next up was velouté of celery drizzled with truffle oil served in a tiny cup and saucer. “Do I drink it or eat it with the spoon?” Livi asked, stirring it vigorously like an old lady in a tea shop, before picking it up and downing it almost in one. “Nice!” she declared. Toby is not a soup fan and tasted it suspiciously with his spoon. “It’s OK, but I’m not going to eat it,” he decided.
The main course was beautifully tender veal on a bed of quinoa with cucumber and carrot. Both children loved this, complimenting the meat “Like chicken, but different” the “cous-cous” and the “gravy” (veal reduction with a touch of lime, the waiter told us.) Both, unusually, cleared their plates.
Hotel owner and chef Rogier van den Biggelaar told me they have been offering the menu découverte gustative for children since the hotel opened in July 2004.
“We want to offer good food for little people. There’s no reason why they shouldn’t eat as well as the adults.”
“I tend to keep the children’s menu fairly simple but vary it according to their age – for the very little ones chicken is usually a safe bet but alongside that I will do something a little adventurous – perhaps something like violet potatoes or an interesting sauce.”
“I try not to use too much potato or rice and instead more unusual grains which they may not have tried before. The children’s menu is very popular.”
The highlight of the children’s evening was their dessert of beautifully presented iced nougat with strawberries and Coca-Cola ice-cream. “This is the way to live!” Toby declared. I don’t think he’ll ever look at his nuggets and burgers in the same way again.
The Relais Royal in Mirepoix, Ariège, offers a Menu Découverte Gustative pour Les Enfants for 18 euros, and adult menus from 30 euros (20 euros on Friday lunchtime). www.relaisroyal.com Tel: 05 61 60 19 19.
Other places in France to broaden your children’s tastes
The following restaurants offer menus for children which go beyond chicken nuggets and burgers:
Chez Clement, Paris – Menu Gastronome, 12.50 euros. Typical options include Madagascan prawns and fillet of dorade with a pistou puree.
Bélvèdere, Juillac, (Gironde) – Petits Gourmands, 9 euros. Typical dishes include foie gras and chicken escalope sautéed with mushrooms from Paris.
L’Hotel du Pont, Ambialet (Tarn) – Menu enfant, 9.70 euros. Choices include duck liver and magret salad followed by trout fillet in citron butter.
La Sauvagine, Croissy-sur-Seine – Menu enfant, 11 euros. Children choose from the same menu as adults but are served a main course and desert in smaller portions. Examples include Mouclade of squid with tomato followed by Farandole de crème brulée.
Where do you like to eat with your kids? Let me know if you have any recommendations.