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My six-year-old, the food critic…

Reviewing restaurants through the eyes of my child

By Anoothi Vishal

At Sirocco, the world-famous bar and restaurant in Bangkok, i had a rather interesting companion for dinner one night: My daughter Aaliya. A live jazz band, a luxury menu with modern European food and a lovely, candle-lit ambience—this, after all, is the world’s highest al fresco restaurant, the limited tables much sought after by wannabes and celebrities, including those from Hollywood, alike—make this one of the most romantic dining out places in Asia. And yet, there I was, bereft of adult company, making the most of my six-year-old’s shy prattle.

At the sky bar, as people dressed-like-Christmas trees stood around with their drinks, Aaliya and I settled on our glasses of juice, made from some of the choicest fruits around the world—as the labels on the bottles read. And then, we proceeded to dine at the best table specially reserved for us (being a food reviewer does have its privileges, you see), flickering candle light between us. Aaliya eschewed the lobster that I intended to order for her in favour of a simple penne pasta in tomato sauce, and I settled for a comfortable risotto—khichdi — that my daughter could share, should she so wish. To say the least, it was a strange experience, necessitated because I was travelling alone with my daughter and needed to put in some work too!

I don’t know how much or how many of these experiences she will remember when she grows up, but fact is that if she only knew it, my daughter would realize how privileged she is to have eaten at some of the best restaurant in the country and the world thanks to the fact that working mothers like me with few options for reliable child care are always dragging our tots around as we go around earning our bread, in this case literally. If other children usually get taken out to McDonald’s or Pizza Hut as weekend indulgences, my daughter has infinitely more sophisticated taste buds thanks to her early training.

As an infant, we would pack her up and take her around to Asian or Italian restaurants without guilt. She abhorred sitting in the high, children’s chairs that restaurants normally reserve for their tiny guests. She would always carry around, still does, her sketch pad and colours, to keep boredom at bay when her mother needed to have long conversations about flavours and textures on the plate with experts. And there was a stage where she would want to wander off to check out the loo, every 10 minutes, because she was loath to sit in one spot for a four-course meal. But by and large she has been a fuss-free mini foodie in her own right, enjoying her sushi, dimsum, and thin-crust pizzas in particular.

We always underestimate our children. Watching Aaliya has made me realize that they are born with an innate sense of discernment. My daughter has always, invariably, rejected unappetizing dishes and settled for all the delicious ones, even if it meant pecking at adult portions and ignoring her own childish meals sent out by the chef. I remember an evening of tapas at Sevilla, Delhi, in particular. The chef had sent out a portion of pasta for Aaliya. But that remained untouched as she went throught mini bites of squid and calamari, ham and lamb that came to our table. She has eaten spicy Thai fish with as much relish as “bland” sashimi and never, never, have I needed to carry baby food with me. The only time I packed a tiffin box of homemade aloo paranthas, I had to carry it back home—untouched.

Aaliya, I realize, has an instinctive, appreciation for the things that really make a restaurant click. And no amount of PR whitewash or tall claims by chefs and restaurateurs can alter this unschooled wisdom of the very young. She loves Olive in Mehrauli for the white pebbled pathway. It reminds her of a magical land (perhaps of Hansel and Gretel’s trek into the forest, who is to say), and indeed the ambience is a major part of the restaurant’s charm. She does not like MNC pizzas mostly. She loved Zest, or Setz as it is now called, for its very fancy washrooms, thus alerting adult attention to this wow factor. And elsewhere, she has reacted to a chef’s instinctive kindness and warmth—that almost invariably translates into his food; good food is, after all, always cooked by a happy person—when he has lent her crayons or colours and then carefully stored away her signature artwork, ostensibly to put up in his office. And she has picked up on the best bread, the most succulent chicken dish and so on on menus, we now realize. A restaurant review through a child’s eye should be made mandatory.

Food is as good a way as any other to experience the world. And we always tell Aaliya where the dish she is eating comes from. Geography has been made more palatable, or so we hope, for her. But more importantly, a tiny mind has opened to the many possibilities that exist in this world, to the diverse flavours and habits of so many different people, and to the fact that what is familiar and safe is not necessarily the best. There is a whole world out there—with or without food—that can and should be explored. Luckily, my child has been accepting and appreciative.

(The article was published in Child magazine, Sept 2011)

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