By Jeff Dufour - 02/09/06 12:00 AM EST
Anyone can fork over $100 or more per person for what they hope will be a great restaurant meal on Valentine’s Day, but what about the enterprising cook who’d rather stay home on “amateur night,” as many chefs call it? For a fraction of the price, can the culinary do-it-yourselfer wow his or her significant other?
We asked some of the top chefs and restaurant pros around town for advice.
Valentine’s Day is no time to reinvent the wheel. Nearly all chefs cited the “clich�s” when it comes to your menu — oysters, lobster, red meat, honey, chocolate, whipped cream and “things that wiggle,” like flan and cr�me brul�e.
John Wabeck, the chef at Firefly, said, “In every culture, you find something” that connects food and love, whether it’s edible flowers, teas or something more exotic, such as Mexican wedding mol�.
But within those standards, said Zola’s Frank Morales, aim for “a theme — spice and sweetness,” for instance.
When it comes to actual preparations of the feast, “simple and easy” rule the day, said Robert Wiedmaier, the chef at Marcel’s. He said exotic ingredients are OK, as long as your recipe doesn’t require too much labor or skill.
Once you’ve settled on a menu, many chefs recommend focusing on an innovative presentation. Morales suggests serving a scallop in its shell on top of some smoking spices, so as to release their aromas.
“If you want that exotic flair at home, it’s about the smells,” he said.
For Morales, this is one way to put some flair in the service. If you’re serving shellfish, he said, another way is to place a small glass baking dish inside a larger one and fill the “channel” between the two with water, spices and herbs. Freeze them, and when you remove the smaller dish you’ll be left with a frozen tray on which to serve your lobster or oysters.
Wabeck likes to place everything in the center of the table to encourage sharing. “If you want to stab a piece of meat and feed your significant other, you can have at it,” he said. “Or there are two people at the table, there are three things on the table, and they can fight over it.”
That’s why, when dessert rolls around, fondue is a popular choice. “You’re dipping, you’re sharing, it shows you’re not in a rush and you’re enjoying each other’s company,” said Morales, who serves fondue on his regular dessert menu.
But whether you’re dipping or not, it’s hard to go wrong with chocolate. David Guas, executive pastry chef at DC Coast, Acadiana and Ceiba, suggests chocolate mousse.
“It’s very difficult to mess up,” he said. Plus, it can be presented in nearly any fashion. “You can do it a day or two in advance” and then modestly tell your partner that you “just threw this together,” he said.
Among non-chocolate alternatives, he likes tapiocas and custards for their sensory appeal. “We react sense-wise to textures,” he said.
Stuck at the last minute? Try honey and figs, which were “considered godly” in ancient times. Berries soaked in a liqueur always work, and he reminds us that grenadine can turn anything red.
Of course, all this can involve a lot of pressure. Relax, and if you botch one of the courses, “just have a good bottle of champagne and that should fix everything,” Wabeck said.
Vincent Feraud couldn’t agree more. As the sommelier at Maestro in Tysons Corner, he knows his red wines as well as anyone. But he’s the first to say you should scrap them on Valentine’s Day.
“You should forget wine; you should do champagne,” he said. “People don’t do champagne all the time, [but] it’s a sign of celebration in France.”
As an aperitif, he suggests champagne cocktails, such as a dry (or “brut”) bubbly mixed with cr�me de fraise de bois, a wild strawberry liqueur from Alsace that is available in several local wine shops. If you can’t find it, he said, you can always substitute Chambord or peach nectar.
For a main course of shellfish, he suggests a vintage champagne — it’s “always better than blended,” he says. Look for Bollinger RD or Roderer Cristall, two of his favorite bottles.
With meat, you might even pour a ros� champagne.
For dessert, he says, pour an Italian moscato d’asti, a slightly sweet, lightly bubbly wine that can be had for $10.
Is it a lot of champagne? Sure, he says, but it “should be a long evening.”
with pea shoots, grilled eggplant & tahini-garlic-parsley emulsion
By John Wabeck,
executive chef of Firefly
1/4 cup garlic cloves, peeled
1/2 cup picked Italian parsley leaves (half bunch)
1/8 cup tahini (sesame-seed paste)
1/8 cup yogurt
1/2 medium eggplant, cut into 1/2 inch slices
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1/3 pound large shrimp, peeled and deveined
2 tablespoons canola oil
1/2 cup (packed) snow pea shoots
1/2 tablespoon scallions, cut very thinly on the bias
Tahini-garlic-parsley emulsion: Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Cook garlic until fragrant. Rinse garlic under cold water. Bring another pot of salted water to a boil, blanch parsley for 15 seconds and immediately plunge into cold water. Combine cooked garlic, parsley, tahini and yogurt in a blender. Pur�e until smooth, adding water to thin as necessary. Season with salt and pepper.
Shrimp: Preheat grill. Toss eggplant with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Grill over medium heat until cooked, about 10 minutes. Remove. Heat a large saut� pan with the canola oil. Season shrimp with salt and pepper, saut� over high heat until shrimp are just underdone, about one minute per side. Add eggplant to combine.
Divide shrimp/eggplant mixture between two plates. Spoon tahini-garlic-parsley emulsion around. Divide pea shoots among the plates, sprinkle with the scallions. Serve immediately.
By Frank Morales,
executive chef of Zola
1/2 tablespoon white-wine vinegar
1/2 tablespoon granulated sugar
1/2 tablespoon water
1/2 tablespoon coriander seed
1/2 peel of 1 lemon
1 clove of garlic, smashed
1/2 teaspoon ginger, minced
1/2 Roma tomato, chopped
2 ounces canned unsweetened coconut milk
Salt and white pepper to taste
1 tablespoon corn oil
3/4 pound U-10 (under 10 to a pound) sea scallops, with shells
4 ounces peeled, cooked salsify, blanched
4 ounces peeled, cooked green asparagus, blanched
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1/3 cup star anise
1/3 cup green cardamom
1/3 cup coriander seed
1/3 cup kosher salt
2 oz. water
Sauce: Put first 9 ingredients together in a small sauce pot. Bring up to a simmer and cook for 12 minutes taste and season with salt and pepper. Strain through a fine mesh strainer and reserve.
Scallops: Heat corn oil in a heavy gauge saucepan over medium to high heat. Season scallops with salt and pepper, add to saut� pan and cook for three minutes. Add butter melt and flip. Cook for an additional 30 seconds, season with salt and pepper and remove from the pan.
Aromatherapy: Combine spices and water in a mixing bowl, place in a heavy-gauge saut� pan and toast until an aroma develops.
Serve scallops, sauce and vegetables in shell over toasted spices.
Pan-seared filet mignon
with caramelized shallots and Stilton cheese
By Robert Wiedmaier,
executive chef of Marcel’s
2 5-ounce filets of beef tenderloin
6 peeled shallots
3-4 stems thyme
2 whole garlic cloves
4 ounces room temperature Stilton cheese
Kosher salt and cracked black pepper
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Coat an oven-safe pan with olive oil and add shallots. Cook until golden brown, and then add thyme and garlic. Roast off until you can run a paring knife through the shallots. Remove from oven, discard thyme and garlic and set aside.
Season meat on all sides with salt and pepper. Coat a cast-iron skillet with olive oil and heat until very hot. Sear meat on all sides and then place skillet in oven and cook for about six minutes for medium-rare or up to 12 minutes for medium.
Remove filet from oven and place one piece in center of plate. Place three roasted shallots around the filet and crumble half of the Stilton on top of the filet. Serve with a fresh arugula salad.
By Frank Morales,
executive chef of Zola
5 ounces 58 percent chocolate, chopped into uniform small pieces
2 1/4 ounces heavy cream
1 ounce light corn syrup
Put a pot of water on to simmer, chop chocolate and place in a mixing bowl with the corn syrup. Bring the cream to a boil. Pour it over the chocolate and corn syrup mixture and place the bowl over the pot of simmering water. With a whisk, stir until well blended. Serve in fondue pot with a flame underneath to keep warm. Serve with marshmallows, brownies, strawberries, bananas, etc.
Rose-petal and vanilla-bean cr�me br�l�e
By David Guas,
executive pastry chef at DC Coast, Ceiba and Acadiana
1/2 cup whole milk
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 vanilla bean, split lengthwise, scraped
1 tablespoon edible rose petals
4 egg yolks, grade A large
1 teaspoon rose water
Granulated sugar, to sprinkle on top
Preheat oven to 200 degrees. In a heavy saucepot, combine milk, cream, sugar, vanilla bean and petals. Heat over high heat until hot but do not bring to a boil.
Remove from heat and whisk hot mixture into egg yolks. Add rose water. Strain through fine strainer. Chill strained mixture in a water bath. Portion chilled mixture into 6-ounce cr�me br�l�e dishes or ramekins placed on a sheet tray. Bake in preheated oven for approx 40-45 minutes or until just set. (If your oven has a fan setting, use the low fan.) Chill for at least 2 hours or overnight.
Just before serving, remove the chilled custards from the refrigerator. Sprinkle the top with an even layer of granulated sugar and burn using a br�l�e or propane torch.
Chef John Wabeck’s Valentine’s menu, served Saturday through Tuesday, encourages lovers to share and to feed each other. Menu selections include pizza with crispy oysters, salmon roe and cr�me fra�che caliente; risotto with gold leaf; Chateaubriand for two; and “adult” chocolate pudding. The price is $125 per couple; add another $125 for wine pairings with each course.
1310 New Hampshire Ave. N.W.
At Marcel’s, Chef Robert Wiedmaier will prepare a $125-per-person, five-course prix fixe menu, which includes carpacchio of Ahi tuna, pan-seared scallop with fondue of spinach, fillet of North Carolina grouper and raspberry cheesecake with butterscotch ice cream, among other choices.
2401 Pennsylvania Ave. N.W.
Chef Frank Morales is preparing a four-course menu for $55 on Valentine’s Day, including Atlantic blue-crab salad, sweet-potato dumplings with Maine lobster, Indian-spiced lamb rib-eye and vanilla-pineapple-buttermilk crepes with rum glaze. Each item will also be available � la carte with Zola’s regular menu.
800 F St. N.W.
Ceiba is serving a three-course menu on Valentine’s Day. Diners can choose from a limited selection of appetizers, any entr�e from the regular menu and three specialty desserts created by Pastry Chef David Guas: Mexican milk-chocolate flan, warm Spanish-rice pudding and coconut cake. A small gold box of truffles will be given to each female diner at the end of the meal as a gift to take home. Price ranges from $50-75 per person, depending on entr�e choice.
701 14th St. N.W.
At Tosca, Chef Cesare Lanfranconi’s Menu Della Passione is an $85, four-course meal that includes Maine scallop on the half-shell, taglierini pasta with roasted lobster, lamb loin with mint mashed potatoes and an array of desserts for two. Wine pairings are available for $40 per person.
1112 F St. N.W.
Morton’s Tysons Corner has paired with Tiffany to offer what it calls the “Ultimate Proposal” for Valentine’s Day. The promotion features one of Morton’s molten-chocolate cake desserts topped with a diamond engagement ring from Tiffany. A release from the restaurant notes that “although the cake’s ‘menu price’ is listed as $10,000, the actual price will depend on the value of the ring.”
8075 Leesburg Pike
Like its sister restaurant Ceiba, Acadiana has a three-course menu for $50-$75, featuring many of the restaurant’s standard menu items and special desserts. Its Valentine’s Day confections are rose-petal and vanilla-bean cr�me br�l�e, warm bittersweet-chocolate bread pudding and crispy fig phyllo wraps.
901 New York Ave. N.W.