Happy Valentine's Day
Isn't it romantic, gazing longingly into the eyes of your significant other - surrounded by scores of other like-minded couples?
Yes, young lovers, Valentine's Day draws near, and all thoughts turn to l'amour, red roses, Belgian chocolates and a magic meal at a romantic restaurant.
Good luck. Valentine's is one of the busiest restaurant days of the year. Everyone--well, almost everyone--will be eating out Wednesday night. Restaurants will be packed, service may be harried and special menus may mean that your favorite foods are not available. If you find it difficult to be romantic in a crowd, a special dinner cooked at home may be the right ticket.
But you can have a wonderful, magical time on Valentine's Day, drinking each other in with your eyes while you sup to your heart's content. While the connection between food and love is indisputable, what makes a meal romantic is the chemistry between the two people involved, and not the magic that goes on in the restaurant's kitchen. Having said that, there are some things you can do, or at least consider, to make your Valentine's Day dinner truly special: Remember, the meal is just an excuse to spend some time together, gaze into each other's eyes and say silly, goofy things. So you don't necessarily have to splurge. If you two have some special restaurant where you can be far from the madding crowd, eat there. If you don't have a special restaurant, get ready to spend some bucks. This is not the time for a sports bar, or an all-you-can-eat beef and ale house. Also, this is not the time to be excessively health-conscious. Fat carries flavor, so eschew the tofu and eat like you've never heard of the word "cholesterol." Certain cuisines do lend themselves to candlelight meals. French, of course; Italian--certainly. In fact, Italian would be my first choice for a romantic restaurant meal. And not just because of the food. Italian waiters sound romantic just reciting the specials. And who looks more suave than an Italian waiter in a tux? Consider this choice: Chinese. No culture values food more than the Chinese. Chinese food is very refined, beautiful and sensual. Use chopsticks to put morsels of food into each other's mouth.
Choosing the meal is easy. Start with ice-cold raw oysters or sushi; a pasta course for the carbohydrates; some seared red meat, either filet mignon or rack of lamb (there's something sensual about chewing); a dark, tannic red wine (tannin makes you pucker); chocolate (dark and decadent) for dessert; and espresso (to perk you up).
OK, young lovers--and middle-aged and golden-aged lovers-here's a subjective rundown of some of the most romantic dining spots in Central Jersey. There's nothing worse than being disappointed in love, so call ahead for reservations:
ROMANTIC DINING GUIDE
ANTON'S AT THE SWAN, the Swan Hotel, 43 S. Main St., Lambertville; (609) 397-1960. OK, it's a schlepp to Lambertville, especially in the winter, but you can't get more romantic than this. Anton's is small and dark, and located in a brick jewel-box called the Swan Hotel. The dining room is filled with lovely antiques. The food is progressive and very good.
CAFE ABBRACI, 140 Durham Ave., Metuchen; (908) 548-6077. A one-time biker bar, this cute little BYOB restaurant looks like a French country inn, but serves sophisticated Italian fare. The name means to embrace--what can be more romantic? Its owned by the same people who run Trattoria Nicola in Franklin.
LA FONTANA, 120 Albany St., New Brunswick; (908) 249-7500. Like an Italian opera, La Fontana is larger than life. You get plush chairs, frosted glass, gleaming brass, a staff that pampers you and modern Italian food that will make you swoon. I'd go with the foie gras and truffle agnollotti with fresh sage and white asparagus and the veal chop with Alaskan King Crab meat.
PANICO'S, 103 Church St., New Brunswick; (908) 545-6100. Cool, contemporary and sophisticated, that's Panico's. I don't know if it's an illusion, but the dining area seems to be cordoned off into small cul-de-sacs for privacy. The service is superb. I'd choose the veal osso bucco any way that chef Jim Weaver is preparing it that day.
THE OLD MILL INN, Old Mill Road, Spring Lake Heights; (908) 449-1800. Not the coziest of places, but the view of Old Mill Pond is romantic in the extreme. You'll find superb seafood and steaks, a killer wine list and decent desserts
THE RYLAND INN, Route 22 West, Whitehouse; (908) 534-4011. It's beautiful, it's out of the way and the food is to die for. A warm wood fireplace is an added bonus. The food is progressive French and American. Try the roasted rack of lamb with oven-dried tomatoes, artichokes and basil
STAGE LEFT, 5 Livingston Ave., New Brunswick; (908) 828-4444. Remember Rick's Cafe Americain, from the movie "Casablanca"? Stage Left reminds me of Rick's, only without Rick, Ilse and Sam. A small dining room with a beautiful old bar, Stage Left has glass blocks at the entrance and a changing local art exhibit on its walls. The interior is not distracting and tables have fresh flowers and candles. The food is contemporary and the wine list has some bottles you won't find anywhere else. The grilled duck breast will give you something to chew on.
TRATTORIA MODERNA, 593 Route 18 South, East Brunswick; (908) 651-7737. This is the place to go if you're young, beautiful and very hip. Or feel that way. This is not your mother and father's idea of a romantic restaurant. For one thing it's situated in a strip mall storefront, for another, the interior is ultra modern and off the wall. This drop dead decor has a lot going on and you might find it too distracting for a tete a tete. But the lighting is dim and the food is terrific.