The boy was no more than ten, his feet dangling from the sushi bar stool, but there was no hesitation in his high, thin voice: “Mommy, the toro’s not as fresh as it was last time.”
His take on the sashimi was dead-on. The boy knew his fatty tuna.
I haven’t run into him again. But more and more these past few years I’ve seen the type: savvy, opinionated, knowledgeable young eaters who, though they’ve yet to hit their teens, look for any opportunity to show off their daring and discerning palates.
Mac ’n’ cheese, chicken tenders, fish sticks—such pedestrian fare scarcely arouses the petite gourmand’s interest. A plate of seared and sauced foie gras, on the other hand? Bring it on. Mussels? As long as they’re garlicky. Sushi? Yes, please—and don’t stint on the fresh wasabi.
The fixation on food goes beyond the pleasures of the table. These kids take advanced pastry classes and spend summers at cooking camp. They’ve done Europe. They have their own knives. They fantasize about becoming restaurant critics.
Though their taste buds are more sophisticated than mine were at their age, these kids are not prodigies. Raised in an affluent area amid a food revolution, an era when chefs, cooking, and eating double as entertainment, petite gourmands are simply the products of a food-mad culture.
Curious to view them up close and in their element, we rounded up a group of petite gourmands to go to dinner.
The setting: a fall evening at Zaytinya, a Greek-Turkish restaurant in downtown DC with 70 different kinds of mezze. The petite gourmands are sitting at a large table on the balcony overlooking the high-ceilinged dining room.
Though the seven have never met, they’ve quickly bonded over a keenly shared passion: food. They read their menus like other kids read Harry Potter.
Nathaniel—impish, energetic, quick with a quip—spots a favorite. “Mmmm—escargots. My little sister tried escargots. She hated them. But she loves broccoli.”
Across the table, Marisa Messina, vocal and expressive, jumps in. “I didn’t like tomatoes until we went to this farm where you can pick them fresh, and they were soooo good.”
The others nod knowingly.
Alexa, very much the young lady in pearls and a party dress, shrugs: “Ketchup is just tomatoes with lots of extra sugar.”
Marisa M. wrinkles her nose: “Ketchup has sugar? Gross.”
Talk turns to ordering Adana kebab, a sort of Middle Eastern hamburger served with sumac-dusted onions.
Nathaniel grins and says, “There’s this old-fashioned burger place we went to in California. They have this one burger packed with onions called the Stinko Burger.”
The table roars.
“It’s much better than McDonald’s,” he says, turning serious. “I read this book, Chew on This, and I never want to eat McDonald’s again.”
Colin, ever ready with an anecdote, joins in: “I hate McDonald’s. Have you ever seen Super Size Me?”
Alexa’s eyes widen at the memory of the movie. “This guy ate McDonald’s for three months, and he got a really bad disease.”
Nathaniel’s head is buried again in the menu. “Ooh, they have squid. Someone has to pick the squid.”
Alexa: “That’s calamari.”
Marisa Remez, Nathaniel’s flaxen-haired older sister, says, “In Greece last summer, we didn’t have a meal without calamari.”
Colin: “When I was in New Orleans we had crawfish every day. Have you ever had alligator? I had an alligator po’ boy there.”
Marisa M. looks up from her menu. “Does anyone like shrimp?”
Silly question with this group; everyone raises a hand.
She’s eyeing a dish called garides me anitho—shrimp with dill, shallots, mustard, and lemon. She thinks it’s going to be pretty good.
Michael, serious and thoughtful, speaks up for the first time. “I want to try the lemonatha”—a sparkling lemonade infused with orange blossom.
Marisa M. says, “I’ll try the apricot to be different.”
Jack, game for anything, seems to reconsider too. “Can I change to the sour-cherry juice?” He brushes his dark bangs aside.
They order. No one picks squid—they’ve all had it before and are after the thrill of the new.
The plates arrive a few at a time.
Marisa R. says to her brother, Nathaniel, “The pita is so puffy. It looks homemade.”
Jack runs his thumb back and forth over the surface. “Is this a dusting of cornmeal?”
Michael tears a piece off and watches the steam rise: “It’s really hot and crusty.”
Colin: “You could put the taramasalata [a dip made with cured fish roe] in it. . . . I get this at the Parthenon [a Greek restaurant in Chevy Chase DC] all the time.”
Marisa R., slathering a spoonful on a piece of pita: “The taramasalata is really good. It tastes like fishy hummus.”
Colin: “I like how the fish is blended in. I really like the roe in sushi, too, and caviar.”
Michael wrinkles his brow as he concentrates on his first bite. “The texture’s weird, but the flavor’s good.”
Nathaniel: “It’s like little pebbles.”
Alexa: “My grandma’s tastes different; it’s not as salty.”
The falafel Abdel, crisp little balls with elegant tahini sauce, gets raves.
Colin sums it up: “It’s soft and warm on the inside, crunchy on the outside. I didn’t think a vegetarian dish would taste so good.”
Marisa M.’s shrimp pick, the garides me anitho, gets a thumbs-up too.
Alexa: “Mmm, I love the creaminess of the shrimp sauce.”
Marisa M.: “Is there raspberry or currant in it?”
Colin: “Shrimp from different places taste different. Like Gulf Coast shrimp. I think smaller shrimp have more flavor. This sauce really complements the shrimp.”
Marisa R.: “Yeah, it doesn’t overpower it.”
Opinions vary on the havuc koftesi—a carrot, apricot, and pine-nut fritter with pistachio sauce—but it’s generally agreed that there are too many pine nuts, not enough carrots. Avgotaraho—cured and pressed grey mullet roe, a pungently fishy Greek delicacy—has only one fan.
Marisa M.: “This is a little—unique.” She makes a moue of distaste.
Jack, pushing his bangs away and putting on a brave face: “I’m going to wrap a lot of bread around it [as the waiter had suggested] so I don’t taste it.”
Nathaniel slathers taramasalata on the cured roe. “Look! Fish eggs on fish eggs!”
Michael: “I wouldn’t order that again.”
Colin: “Oh, I don’t know. I’ve never had this before. I like it.”
They dig into a pot of mussels with tomato, feta, and micro basil.
Jack is much happier than when he was tasting the mullet roe: “I like the sauce because I love tomatoes. It’s a tomato base but sort of creamy, too.”
Colin turns to Jack waving a piece of pita: “Dip the bread in the mussel sauce. I like to do that when I have extra sauce.”
Next to arrive: shish taouk, marinated chicken kebabs with garlic sauce, sumac-sprinkled onions, and grilled tomatoes. And manti nejla, tiny beef-stuffed pasta with roasted-garlic yogurt and paprika butter.
Marisa R.: “The chicken is grilled just right, and I like the garlic sauce.”
Jack: “Those sumac onions are a little spicy, but mmmm . . . .” Then he spoons up a taste of manti: “Ohhh—that is gooood.”
Colin says to Jack: “It’s like mini-ravioli.”
Michael: “Except the sauce is creamy and delicious.”
The group compares two meat dishes—keftedes, spicy patties of ground beef and lamb with garlic sauce, a special that night, and the Adana kebab, milder skewered ground lamb with grilled tomatoes and sumac onions.
Michael: “The kebab is just a little spicy. My dad makes burgers with lots of spices that taste more like the keftedes. I think the kebab is good with the onion and tomato, but by itself, the keftedes are better because they’re really spicy.”
Colin: “You know, my first babysitter was from Sri Lanka, where their peppers are seven times hotter than jalapeños. She would bring them for lunch, and I would eat them all. They wouldn’t burn my tongue.”
One memory triggers another, and Colin is recounting other culinary oddities from his past. “I had turtle soup at Commander’s Palace in New Orleans, and I’ve had shark twice. Jaleo has the best shark.”
Michael: “I’ve had grilled shark. I was only five years old.”
Jack: “I looove seaweed salad.”
The final courses hit the table: quail with roasted peppers and feta; hunkar begendi, lamb shank on a purée of eggplant and kefalograviera cheese; and lagos krassatos me fkies, rabbit braised with lentils.
Alexa, fingering her pearls: “I’ve never had quail before. This is really tender. And I love the sauce of peppers and feta.”
Michael: “I had quail once at a restaurant in Delaware. It was cooked with rosemary and was really good—this is almost as good.”
Marisa M.: “The eggplant with lamb is wonderful. It tastes like it was slow cooked and has a smoky flavor.”
Nathaniel, pondering the morsel he’s eating: “The rabbit is sort of chewy, but in a good way.”
Alexa: “It kind of tastes like the quail.”
Marisa M.: “Smoky.”
Jack holds up a bony piece. “Is this the rib cage?”
Colin: “I love rabbit.”
Marisa R. slumps back in her chair and sighs. “I’m full.”
Alexa: “Me too.”
All agree: It’s the good kind of full.➝
A few minutes later, however, the waiter swings by with dessert menus, and their claims of fullness are long forgotten. They sound like, well, kids—noisy, giggling, uncontainable. “Let’s get the Turkish apricots.” “No, no, the Medjool dates sound better.” “Oooh, the Chocolate Visne sounds really good.”
They settle on four: Namoura, a warm semolina cake with orange-blossom sorbet and caramel; Medjool dates with olive-oil ice cream and pistachio sauce; Chocolate Visne, milk-chocolate cream with cherry sorbet and three caramels; and Turkish Delight, a mélange of goat’s-milk mousse, walnut ice cream, honey gelée, and caramelized pine nuts.
Marisa M., her mouth puckering: “The sorbet in the Namoura is really sour.”
Marisa R., licking her spoon and looking at Marisa M. in surprise: “It’s really fruity and lemony. I love it.”
Jack ignores the sorbet after one spoonful and concentrates on the cake: “The cake is the best part.”
Colin: “The cake and the orange-blossom sorbet go together really well.”
Alexa tries the Turkish Delight. “The walnut ice cream is really creamy, and I like the nuts, but I’m not a fan of the gelée.”
Marisa M.: “The little wafer really complements the ice cream.” She alternates between wafer and ice cream till they’re gone.
Alexa regards her thoughtfully. She takes another taste, just to make sure.
The boys attack the Chocolate Visne with gusto.
Colin: “Oooh, that cherry sorbet.”
Michael nods enthusiastically. “This has a lot of flavor.”
Nathaniel: “It doesn’t taste like the chocolate mousse I tried to make”—he pauses and grins—“and that’s a good thing.”
Last are the Medjool dates with olive-oil ice cream.
Jack: “It tastes too much like olive oil.”
Colin: “The ice cream’s too tangy for me.”
Marisa R., licking her spoon: “It has an aftertaste, like yogurt mixed with olive oil.”
Marisa M., with a look of disgust: “I like my ice cream sweet. I appreciate them trying to do something different, but don’t do that.”
It’s getting late. The petite gourmands are really groaning now about being too full. They get up from the table. Some hug, some shake hands.
Later they will text-message their friends and write in their journals. Later they will experiment in the kitchen with newly discovered flavors and textures.
For now, though, it’s a school night, and Mom and Dad are waiting in the car.Meet the petite gourmands:
Defining food moment: “Me and my dad went fishing when we were on Turks and Caicos and caught yellowtail and bonito. We went back to our condo, sliced it up, and made sashimi.”
Tried it and loved it: Raw octopus in Florida, seared buffalo steak in Colorado.
Will travel to: London, “with my mom, for really spicy Indian food.”
Favorite restaurant: Union Square Cafe in New York for “this great beef with port wine, mushrooms, and cream that we make at home now.”
Tried it and loved it: Fish tacos, tortilla soup, and Chinese soup dumplings (“First you bite off the top, then suck out the juice, then dip them in soy sauce and vinegar and stick the whole thing in your mouth”).
Likes to cook: Swedish meatballs with gravy and Swedish pancakes with lingonberry jam; hand-ground pesto with fresh-picked basil.
Favorite dishes: Miso soup and agi tofu at Yosaku in DC’s Tenleytown; fried tofu with peanut sauce at Neisha Thai.
Likes to make: Deviled eggs and Dutch chocolate “zebra” cake with dark chocolate and white frosting stripes.
Tried it and loved it: Chinese soup dumplings; feta cheese and stuffed grape leaves; calamari any which way—“fried, grilled, and sautéed.”
Favorite dishes: Thai ginger chicken at 4912 in DC; Passion Beef at Neisha Thai in DC; “my mom’s Swedish yellow split-pea soup.”
Tried it and loved it: Oysters on the half shell, Alaskan king-crab legs, escargots.
Helps her Greek grandma make: Chicken kapana—stewed chicken with lemon and tomatoes—and melomakarona, a sugar cookie with honey and nuts.
Favorite dishes: Sweet-and-sour flank steak with Yukon Gold potatoes at Dahlia in Spring Valley DC; unaki at Tako Grill in Bethesda; steamed mussels with black beans at Shanghai Village in Bethesda.
Tried it and loved it: Jellyfish salad at Tako Grill in Bethesda, alligator po’ boy at Louisiana Express in Bethesda.
Likes to cook: Chocolate-truffle cake, Cuban bread, macadamia-nut macaroons.
Will travel for: Spicy steamed crayfish in Alabama, crabs caught off the coast of Alabama’s Dauphin Island.
Favorite dishes: Octopus rolls and green-tea ice cream at Tako Grill in Bethesda; udon at Hinode in Bethesda; fried calamari and shark at Jaleo.
Tried it and liked it: “Cow brain” gelatin and pudding dessert in New York’s Chinatown.
Defining moment: Wrote reviews of Tara Thai, Foong Lin, Benihana, and Houston’s, all in Bethesda, for school newspaper.
Perfect breakfast: Leftover Chinese.
Makes: Pan-fried dumplings, broccoli with black-bean sauce.
Favorite dishes: Quail with rosemary; salmon and tuna rolls; pizza and Serrano ham at 2 Amys in Cleveland Park (“You have to ask for it, it’s not on the main menu”).
Ambition: Food critic.
Tried it and loved it: Lentils, soft-shell-crab tempura roll.
Cooks: Salmon en croûte, sautéed French beans with mushrooms, twice-baked potatoes.
Defining food moment: “When I ate everyone else’s asparagus soufflé” (the amuse one night at Marcel’s in DC’s West End).
Favorite dishes: Mushroom risotto and Gorgonzola-and-pear salad at Tosca in Downtown DC; beet salad with goat cheese and walnuts at Restaurant Nora in Dupont Circle; butter chicken and yellow lentils in mild curry sauce at Cafe Taj in McLean.