Hunger and lust, two primitive instincts: alone, each can drive us to root in the dirt; combined, they can make us run wild in the streets. Here, four Current writers relate their memorable romantic food experiences, whether dining out or staying home. Carefully pick your edibles, potables, and audibles — and the rest will take care of itself.
From Moose to Fig Tree
On our fourth wedding anniversary, my husband and I were living 1,200 miles apart; I had recently moved to San Antonio and he was still in Indiana, stuffing the last of our belongings into his 1988 Nissan truck to join me. So for Anniversary No. 5, we decided to spend what to us is a significant sum — upwards of $100 — and dined at Fig Tree.
You can ask my husband: I don’t come by romance naturally. Which isn’t to say I’m not totally smitten by him, but I am clumsy with candles and a very bad dancer. Yet, the white tablecloths, gentle music, and a window overlooking the river brought the room into soft focus, like the cover of a Rod McKuen album. Dennis savored his tender Beef Wellington; I can’t remember what I had, although since I’m a vegetarian, that drastically narrowed the choices. But it did include wine. Lots of wine.
I’m also romantically impaired because I enjoy eavesdropping. At an adjacent table six high-school students sat for their pre-prom dinner. The girls in gowns and wrist corsages, the boys in boutonnieres and suits, they paired off like the Flintstones, the boys anxiously chatting with one another and the girls nervously gossiping amongst themselves, with one occasionally fleeing outside to talk on her cell phone. Another girl inexplicably fought back her tears.
Dennis and I had our first date in 1993 at the Chocolate Moose, an old-fashion ice-cream stand in Indiana. Two malts cost $125 less than the Fig Tree. The date went well — Dennis was witty and charming — but we (or rather, I) waited three years for our second date, which involved Scotch. Lots of Scotch. Seven months later we married.
It’s a long story how Dennis and I wound up a thousand miles away from that ice-cream stand wearing dress-up clothes and eating like royalty. Yet, unlike those high-school girls, I didn’t feel awkward or worried about what my date thought of me. I knew. He knew. And as the evening wore on, the prom-goers faded into the background and I could see only him.
Thou swell, thou witty, thou gourmet
Frankly, I’m opposed. Not to romantic restaurant dining altogether, but certainly to the notion of succumbing to it on Valentine’s Day. And besides, anyone I might be interested in romancing has to share at least a few of my interests — and that includes cooking. So what I’m suggesting is this: an afternoon of cooking together, shading into an evening of eating. The wine drinking starts right along with the chopping. Think Champagne as an opening gambit.
Ideally, the menu should be only moderately challenging — not taxing. After all, this is not a test, but a way to affirm that food is important. Simple puff-pastry gougères would be fine with bubbly, and there’s a good recipe in James Peterson’s Glorious French Food. A selection of pâtés from Central Market and a crusty ficelle from Whole Foods will fill any gaps. At this point, I prefer to load the CD player with, say, Marc Anthony or Juan Luis Guerra; as the afternoon progresses, you can switch to Luis Miguel’s Romances.
Thinking ahead to dessert, it’s fair to purchase something chocolate, but I prefer a homemade chocolate mousse: Make it now, stick it in the refrigerator, and voila! Ready when you are. I like the recipe in The Silver Palate Cookbook.
For the entrée, something simple yet satisfying, such as the coq au vin in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol 1. It’s seasonally appropriate, Rhône wines (a favorite) go with it, and there’s little last-minute fussing. Feel free to substitute buttered noodles for the parsleyed potatoes suggested. Switch to something less frenzied on the CD (I like Nat King Cole). Now that you’re seated — and have moved the flowers from the prep area to the table and lighted the candles — it’s time to dim the lights. If you don’t have dimmers, install them. Clink glasses, congratulate yourselves, and ...
– Ron Bechtol
My husband and I share many characteristics, one being that our taste buds and our wallets file in different tax brackets. This makes for an adventurous gastronomic life together as we try to thwart the efforts of haute gourmet to part us from our hard-earned money. Early on in our relationship he introduced me to the great secret of fine dining on a relative shoestring: late lunch. Although I had fallen in love with him over a rushed taco and a Blackberry at Panchito’s, the first time he took me to lunch at Bistro Vatel, I realized he was the sort of person who instinctively celebrates the uncertain and fleeting nature of life by stopping to smell the rosé — the sort of person I want to spend the rest of my life with.
Before you have even perused the menu, a late lunch will put you in the mood for an afternoon of pleasure. Who but a sybarite with nothing but time to burn would sit down to a full bottle of wine at 1:30 post meridiem? As the workaday world flies by in bytes and gigs far from the cocoon of your banquette (be sure to ask to be seated next to, rather than facing, one another) you can canoodle while surveying the room and interweaving your hopes and dreams.
In San Antonio, we are thwarted by the city’s finest restaurants, many of which snap close like giant clams between lunch and dinner. Make a reservation as far past noon as they’ll allow, and refuse to be rushed; maybe we can start a late-lunch revolution.
In the meantime, we practice our favorite foreplay on the road. One gray winter day in New York, we savored a wild-mushroom-and-rabbit risotto at Terrance Brennan’s Picholine, one of only three tables left at 2 in the afternoon. Nearby, a silver-haired couple dithered over the cheese cart while the hostess lectured on washed rinds like an attractive schoolmarm. It seemed life might go on forever in that cozy, elegant dining room — dirty laundry, sub-par report cards, and human tragedy held at bay by a chocolate pot de creme.
Some unmeasured amount of time later, high on sea-urchin panna cotta and rosemary cotton candy, we strolled through the Upper West Side while fat snowflakes floated lazily down to settle on the ice skaters and dog walkers tracing their happy trails in Central Park.
Oysters shunned as love blooms
We met on the sidewalk in front of the El Milagrito Café on North St. Mary’s Street. She stood there in the morning sunlight, resplendent as an Azteca princess in her deep-blue-sky embroidered dress from México, her home country.
I passed by her at first, and she smiled. I nearly got into my truck and drove off, but something stopped me and I turned around to walk toward her. “Don’t I know you?”
Stupid cliché opening gambit.
“Yes, I know you,” she replied.
“I’ve got to get her telephone number, think of something,” I thought, my mind racing.
“Well, there’s a Women In Communications party next Friday, maybe you would like to go?” I stuttered.
A week later, she wore a hot red skirt and a white blouse. She met me in the parking lot at North Star Mall, and we headed for the cocktail party, supposedly happening somewhere in Olmos Park.
Time flew as I drove around, looking for the street. “Umm, I can’t find the street. Let’s check the city map.”
“OK,” she smiled.
Somewhere on the West Side, I found a street with the same name, but it was obvious we weren’t going to find the party. But this was our first date — time was running out.
“Let’s try this place,” I said, and we pulled into the tiny parking lot in front of La Focaccia Italian Grill, at 800 S. Alamo.
Inside, we sipped longnecks and gazed at each another, the first sparks of an intense courtship that would endure through the years, until she finally consented to marry me on April 2, 1999.
Although we did not partake of the cuisine that first night, my wife, Claudia, and I returned to La Focaccia Italian Grill last week to celebrate our years together, and to actually try the food.
“Remember the waitress who kept after us to order some oysters?” we both recalled.
Last week, we finally ordered the oysters, and I realized something important. La Focaccia Italian grill serves very good food — and my wife, after all these years, is still a hot date.