If intimacy is at the heart of any romantic Valentine's dinner, how is that achieved inside jam-packed restaurants? Everything from the parking spaces in the lot, to the barstools for a toast before the meal, to a window seat with a view may come down to a wait and a competition, not to mention the hurried table turnover and roar of the crowds even if you do have a reservation.
For the first time, my husband and I cracked this tough nut last year and had one of the most romantic and memorable Valentine's Days of our long courtship, and it seems like some national chains read our minds from advertisements I've seen for this year.
Because of his work schedule, we went out not on Valentine's Day, which is of course one of the busiest restaurant days of the year and often involves expensive price fixed menus, but a different night that week. We were able to go to our favorite restaurant without a reservation, sit at a table with a gorgeous view and order from the a la carte items we prefer. Mostly, it was incredibly relaxed and romantic; we felt like we were in our own special world with a secret without others experiencing a rushed cookie-cutter experience an elbow away from us. We decided we would repeat the experience every year because it was exceptional.
Prior to this holiday, I was surprised to see a slew of restaurants alerting those on their email lists to similar suggestions. The first one I received was from Seasons 52, an upscale chain serving farm-fresh locally sourced health-style meals. They suggested to "beat the Valentine's rush this year." They recommended a champagne toast with a three-course meal at a special price for two only available on the nights surrounding Valentine's Day that's "perfect for a more relaxed and intimate celebration." They further stressed that "your date is important. The date is not."
My only fear as I saw more such advice in the favored customer emails sent to me from restaurants: Maybe date switching will become so popular that it will defeat the purpose and restaurants will bulge not only on Valentine's Day, but the currently slow-traffic weeknights surrounding it.
This year is still most likely ripe for secret romance. What's also nice to impress your Valentine, without the work of preparing an entire meal at home, is to follow our other cozy culinary advice: Either before or after heading out, whip up an impressive, but shortcut, appetizer or dessert for your honey. Following are a few of our favorites. All ingredients are to your taste — or that of your sweetheart.
MELON MELANGE FOR MY HONEY
Remove seeds from honeydew and cantaloupe melons. With a melon baller or a round tablespoon measure, scoop bite-sized balls from the melons and from seedless watermelon (or remove seeds from watermelon if seedless is not available). Marinate in a mixture of honey and curry powder, along with dried cranberries, chopped dried figs and minced scallions. With a slotted spoon, serve fruit mixture over a bed of romaine hearts and then drizzle honey sauce over it to taste.
A CUPCAKE FOR MY CUPCAKE
Cut a cylinder within a large frosted store-bought cupcake and fill with a slotted spoon with a mixture of blueberries and chopped hulled strawberries that have been soaked in champagne or ginger ale. Top with store-bought whipped cream that's been gently mixed with pure almond extract and colorful sprinkles.
AFTER-WORK GOURMET COOKBOOK SHELF
If you're looking for a pink, sweet and show-stopping treat for your Valentine (or your sweetheart of a child), the time of year is perfect to try Victoria Kann's "Pinkalicious Cupcake Book." Kann is the bestselling illustrator behind the whimsical "Pinkalicious" picture book series. Having edible evidence of her magical world is inspired. Everything from classic pink cupcakes with cherries on top, to a princess cupcake and castle, to flower-shaped decorated cake pops is among the 20 unique recipes. Valentine's Day may be a good day to start, but kiddie or adult birthday parties throughout the year are equally as appropriate settings for the specialties.
Lisa Messinger is a first-place winner in food writing from the Association of Food Journalists and the author of seven food books, including "Mrs. Cubbison's Best Stuffing Cookbook" and "The Sourdough Bread Bowl Cookbook." To find out more about Lisa Messinger and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.