A German in China discover the synergy between keeping children fed and healthy.
Dining out with babies and young children can be a little more than an adventure if you are not fully prepared for it.
These days quite a fewrestaurants have menus for children that go a long way to filling tiny tummies, but it takes more than food to appease the young. Often parents can be preoccupied ensuring they do not run about the place causing a din and in the process upsetting all and sundry.
Fancy theme restaurants for children cater to those at the hyperactive end of the scale by providing a place to play, but the food is often mediocre.
So the other day when I accidentally wandered into a kids-friendly bistro with a play area that was part of a shop where I was shopping for baby products, my instinct was to head for the exit.
However, my inquisitiveness got the better of me, andI decided tohave lunch there and at the same time find out a little about the place. One of the first things that caughtmy eye, on the menu, was that the proprietor is German. I also found the place to be amenable to the wishes of both children and parents. Children can play, parents can shop and, above all, families can enjoy cuisine that can be classed as gourmet.
The taste buds of my inquisitiveness were only slightly satisfied, so the next day I returned and approached the owner of Bistro Blu, Nils van Doorn, who told me of his views on children’s dining and the experience of being an international parent in China.
The restaurant, which specializes in German and Italian cuisine, offers different dishes catering for babies, toddlers and older children, with a focus on using fresh ingredients and incorporating nutritious elements.
“Kids love ice creams and french fries,” Van Doorn says. “They have a tendency to go for unhealthy food. This is a universal pattern regardless of nationality, and what we are trying to do is to raise the level of the food they are eating. For example, to use frozen yogurt to replace ice cream because it has the same great taste but with a lot fewer calories and sugar.”
Pastas are all fresh, house-made, using Italian equipment, Van Doorn says. “Chicken nuggets are homemade out of fresh chicken instead of the usual KFC ones.”
Not content to keep young palates satisfied, Bistro Blu also offers cooking classes for children every weekend at its three outlets, in Beijing, Shanghai, and Chengdu, the aim being to show them that you can have a lot more fun cooking at home than in spending time in fast-food restaurants.
“These are little steps. If you try to change kids all at once you will fail. It just builds up resistance. If you try to go step by step, though slower, you will make an impact.”
We tried some baby pasta, tiny pieces in the shape of letters of the alphabet, with tomatos auce, suitable for babies about 7 or 8 months old. It should not be assumed that all baby food are bland; in fact this one was slightly aromatic, perhaps due to the fact that the pasta is fresh, made with barley flour, oil, eggs and water.
The dish is salt free because the kidneys of a baby this age cannot take salt.
Once it is safe to introduce salt to a baby’s diet, there is another pasta dish of low salt and oil with a cute layout of fruit and vegetables and smiley potato pies. This fusilli pasta is very soft, deliberately cooked to excess so that it is not chewy, making it palatable to toddlers.
Older children have a choice of various sets of beef, pizza and sausages.
While children eat or have fun at the restaurant play area of swings, slides, and toys, parents can treat themselves with delightful treats as well, such as the authentic German delight Schweinshaxe (a sizable roasted pork knuckle).
The cracked skin is a delectable crust, and the meat inside butter soft, almost falling apart at the mere touch of a fork and knife. This dish takes time: once the marinated pork knuckle is put into the oven it is sprinkled with beer every 15 minutes over two hours, Van Doorn said. Only by sticking rigidly to that method, he said, can the skin be crisp and chewy and not stick to one’s teeth. The fat under the skin is a revelation, too, delicious and grease free, and with the texture of bone marrow.
Also try balancing your palate with what it is paired with the pork knuckle—the sour sauerkraut( fermented cabbage), the German version of Chinese pickled cabbage suan cai.
We also tried risotto, wanting to test how Bistro Blu performs with this dish that is simple but notoriously difficult to get right. The porcini mushrooms risotto and seafood risotto me tour high expectations, exquisitely mushy and slightly chewy.
The idea for such a restaurant and a shop selling baby products was born with the joys and frustrations of becoming an international parent in China, Van Doorn said.
“When my son was born in 2008 I found it was hard to find high-quality baby products in shops in Shanghai. They did not meet my requirements in terms of quality, safety and design. So I ended up bringing back most of the baby products from food to strollers, to car seat from Europe laboriously whenever I went back to Germany, and whenever my wife and I had a friend coming back from Europe.”
He jokes: “Eventually we were on the verge of losing all our frequentflyer friends. Having to bring kilograms of baby food back from every trip to Europe can get in the way of friendships.”
So he and his wife, Chen Lian, decided they needed to do something to find a solution, not only for them but for others in their situation as well, he said. They then set up Baby International, importing quality baby products.
“We first created an online shopping platform, baby-international. I did all the deliveries, carrying orders all over Shanghai, and met customers who in turn introduced us to their friends.”
The matter of dining for children occurred to him, he said, after he once almost lost his son when the family was out dining. Why not set up a restaurant besides his store, where children have a play area and parents can enjoy decent food?
Parents do not need to while away the time waiting outside the play center, and they do not have to nip into a fast food establishment, thus compromising their children’s nutrition, he said.
Bistro Blu also offers customized planning for birthday parties, mothers’ meetings and doctors’ seminars.
“Our goal is to bring people together,” Van Doorn says.
Van Doorn said he hopes to expand eventually, with a business model of a Bistro Blu attached to a Baby International store. There are plans for a new outlet in Hangzhou some time this year.
Kids love ice creams and french fries. They have a tendency to go for unhealthy food. ... What we are trying to do is to raise the level of the food they are eating.” Nils van Doorn, owner of Bistro Blu
Bistro Blu is a place that children can play, parents can shop and, above all, families can enjoy cuisine that can be classed as gourmet.
Nils van Doorn with his wife and son.