COVER STORY A heartfelt love letter to contemporary Valentine’s Day dining.
Hold the oysters and champagne. Modern Valentine’s Day dining is about light yet indulgent food and warm-weather wine pairings. LINDY ALEXANDER explores a slew of ideas to get hearts racing
Valentine’s Day is an occasion to proclaim your adoration, but it should also be a time to delight in a sensory feast. That doesn’t mean heart-shaped sponge cakes and chocolate-dipped strawberries. Instead, think sexy, decadent food infused with love.
“The best dishes for Valentine’s Day are ones that capture the spirit of romance,” says Ben Williamson of the acclaimed Gerard’s Bistro in Brisbane. “Light, delicate flavours with a touch of luxury and sensuality.”
When prepping dinner for two, start with the best produce you can find. “There’s a plethora of choice because late summer is bountiful,” says Alla Wolf-Tasker, chef and co-owner of the iconic Daylesford restaurant, Lake House. Given that there can be a lot of pressure to make the day live up to its promise, we consulted a team of experts to guide you from the entree to a candlelit nightcap. Who needs Cupid’s arrow when you have food this exceptional?
SETTING THE SCENE
Preparation is the key to enjoying a relaxed and intimate Valentine’s Day.
“The more that can be done before your date arrives, the better,” says Williamson.
“Think about cold-plated entrees, easy to execute mains and desserts that can be orchestrated in advance. Unless you want to get your partner involved in the kitchen for a bit of fun!”
Lobster tails are an ideal date night entree. They are best steamed or poached at home, but Wolf-tasker says freshly cooked ones from a fishmonger also work well. “Just make sure they’ve not been frozen after cooking,” she says.
A silky aioli, flavoured with fresh herbs and lemon juice, is the perfect accompaniment. Wolf-tasker adds a little yoghurt to lighten the dish. “Serve the aioli alongside the lobster tails to dunk the chunks in,” she says. “Better still, make this a shared dish and feed each other.”
THE MAIN EVENT
“The last thing you want is to eat is something big and heavy,” says chef and restaurateur Matt Moran.
As a main course, Moran suggests pan-fried John Dory served with roasted cherry tomatoes, beans and zucchini flowers. “It’s nice and light, but will give you some energy because you have a big night ahead of you,” he says, laughing.
If seafood isn’t your thing, miso-poached free-range chicken with fresh Asian greens is delicate but full of umami-rich flavours.
Amanda Yallop, sommelier at Sydney’s Quay restaurant, often pairs seafood with semillon. “But also consider the hero protein, the method of cooking and the garnish,” she says.
For Moran’s John Dory, Yallop suggests a moderate-bodied chardonnay. “You want some acidity to cut through the fat,” she says. “The dark days of chardonnay are over. I would suggest Stargazer from Tasmania.”
For those not wanting to imbibe, there are plenty of non-alcoholic options. “Iced tea, vegetable juice and sparkling water with a dash of apple juice are all good options,” Yallop says. “Go freestyle with your choices and have a couple of options.”
THE SWEETEST THING
Valentine’s Day is synonymous with dessert. “Go for anything that’s elegant with a luxurious mouth feel,” says Williamson. “Light-set custards, creamy desserts or high-end cheeses are all things that can be shared and lend a special touch,” he says.
“There needs to be something luscious and sensuous about the meal,” Wolf-tasker says.
“Think of white peaches so ripe that the juice runs down your chin, ripe figs and sweet, plump raspberries. Scatter some scented rose petals over the fruit to echo the raspberries.”
Lots of traditional aphrodisiacs might be out for non-meat eaters, but chef Shannon Martinez of Melbourne vegan restaurant Smith & Daughters suggests finishing off the evening with a latenight cocktail and snack.
“You can make a gorgeous almond milk cocktail shaken with cognac, Cointreau and espresso,” she says.
And to nibble on, Martinez recommends chocolate pate with olive oil and sea salt spread on a fennel baguette. “It’s quite a traditional Spanish dish,” she says. “The pepperiness of the oil together with the salt and fennel give it a real savoury edge,” Martinez says.
The best way to ensure your Valentine’s Day is one to remember is to keep the food relatively simple and cook within your capabilities. “Don’t use this occasion to experiment,” Wolf-tasker says. “Adding that special ingredient – love – will make whatever you prepare very special.”