Valentine's Day -- a good excuse to tell the people we love that we love them the best way we know how. A hand-made card, candy, flowers, perfume, underwear . . . all that stuff works for me. Please just don't drag me to a restaurant on the busiest, most hectic night of the year.
I have zero interest in sitting cheek-by-jowl with dozens of other twitterpated twosomes, dining from a prix-fixe menu built for the kitchen's convenience and being rushed through my meal so that the next wave of determined lovebirds can be seated. There's a better way, although it probably won't sit well with die-hard romantics.
It's simple, really. Don't go out to dinner on Valentine's Day -- because seriously, do you need a sanctioned holiday to be romantic? Choose just about any day but February 14 (this year, you should probably rule out Friday the 15th and Saturday the 16th as well, which will also be zoo-like) and you and your lover stand a much better chance of kindling the flame. You start out relaxed and stay that way. No timetable. No expectations.
And here's the best part: you'll get the real menu, which, if you've chosen your restaurant wisely, offers up the sort of rich, luxurious dishes that create the warm and fuzzy feelings we're all looking for.
Here are a few of the things I'd love to eat and where I'd love to eat them on the Valentine's Day of my choosing.
J&G Steakhouse, which features four or five East and West Coast varieties a day, is an oyster lover's haven. Customers may mix and match to their heart's content among Blue Points, Malpeques, Kumamotos, Hama Hamas and salty-sweet Totten Island Inlets (a Gulf Coast species farm-raised on the West Coast). Served with lemon wedges, cocktail sauce, horseradish, Tabasco and house-made mignonette, they offer a dazzlingly bright ocean bite: briny and clean tasting, sometimes sweet, sometimes nutty and sometimes metallic. And at $3.25 a pop (no minimum order requirement), you can be as circumspect or as extravagant as you please.
Are we going all out here? Then bring on the caviar at Christopher's, where chef-owner Chris Gross sources premium Black River osetra caviar, a sturgeon species from Siberia, sustainably raised in Uruguay. It gets rave reviews from everyone who's tried it (including Ruth Reichl), and 80 bucks will buy an ounce of it, served with brioche toast, a lemon wedge and créme fraiche on one of Christopher's edible spoons.
Because caviar has become so outrageously expensive, chef-owner Kevin Binkley of Binkley's Restaurant, has started making his own fresh salmon caviar, using a light Japanese-inspired cure. At the moment, he presents a series of vignettes on one plate: the caviar spooned alongside sliced French potato wrapped in a veil of crème fraiche gelee; sprinkled atop smoky paprika-specked deviled quail egg; trailed along cream cheese-stuffed celery, topped with red onion and fresh dill (Binkley's elegant take on Ants on a Log); mounded on a thick slice of roasted daikon and piled in mini puff pastry shells filled with sour cream and salty pop beads of the cured roe. There's even a little extra caviar on the plate, topped with cauliflower foam and grated roasted cauliflower. It's a knockout dish for $19.
I'm back at Christopher's for foie gras for one simple reason. It's all over the menu. Clearly, Gross loves the stuff, offering it up in various permutations and prices. If money is no object, go with the herb-flecked, slow-roasted and seared one-pound lobe ($110), an entrée served with potatoes, carrots and other veggies, all sautéed in a bit of foie fat. Or try Gross's buttery terrine of foie gras mousse ($48), served in a Spam can as an homage to his girlfriend Jamie Hormel.
Gross's most popular foie dish -- terrine of Hudson Valley ABC foie gras with sweet Pedro Ximenez reduction -- cleverly brings all three grades of foie gras together in a layered, multi-textured terrine: the premium A grade made as a classic terrine, the B grade roasted in the wood-burning oven and the C grade transformed into silky mousse ($24). It's become a widely copied classic. If, on the other hand, the budget's tight but you crave a bit of luxury, try the wild mushroom soup, simmered in duck stock and port, topped with foie gras, dusted with wild mushroom powder and fluffed with whipped cream. It's incredibly rich but wonderfully light at once ($18).
And because Valentine's Day is often as much about lust as love, I'd head to Mastro's Ocean Club for something decadent and sexy -- maybe Alaskan King crab legs ($62 per pound) or broiled live Maine lobster ($34 per pound), both sweet, both luscious swathed in dripping in drawn butter. For a more refined but affordable rendition, I'd go to Kai for the Lobster Degustation, a menu staple tweaked now and again by chef de cuisine Josh Johnson ($28). It's always an elegant "lobster three-ways" presentation reflecting indigenous ingredients and a Native American sensibility. At the moment, it's this: butter-braised tail with avocado mousse, tear drop salsa and lobster coral; lobster knuckles in sweet corn panna cotta with sour radishes; and lobster cobbler with mesquite meal and burnt Irish Porter cheese.
To the unabashedly carnivorous, nothing beats a fantastic hunk of red meat any day of the year. And guess what? Chris Gross specializes in this too -- not only a smoked, truffle-infused filet mignon ($38) but a gorgeous 32-ounce Côte de Boeuf, anointed in olive oil and rubbed with herbs, its exterior given a char in the wood-burning oven ($64). The menu describes it as "prime rib" to make it more accessible to the French-phobic, but this juicy, generous slab for two is actually an ultra-thick, bone-in rib steak (or rib eye), more commonly known these days as a "tomahawk" because of its shape. Searsucker turns out a drool-worthy version, finished with Cognac and horseradish ($75), while BLT Steak uses American Wagyu for its fatty, wonderful rib eyes, offered in two sizes: eight ounces, $60, 12 ounces, $92.
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If I wanted to end the night on a light, elegant note, I'd go with a classic soufflé at Vincent on Camelback ($8.50). Served in four flavors -- Grand Marnier, Tequila Gold, Lemon Crepe and Raspberry -- it arrives at the table, puffed, golden and powdered sugar-sprinkled. The server splits it with a knife, pouring crème Anglaise from a small pitcher into its middle, making the ritual almost as delicious as the dessert itself.
Then again, Valentine's Day and chocolate are pretty much synonymous -- which means I might want a chocolate molten lava cake at Roy's. Yes, I know they're a cliché now, but who cares? Are we out to impress each other with our trendiness or just eat something rich and chocolate-y with a high ooze-factor? For me, this is it -- a simple, rich finish to a grand moveable feast.