A Bite, A Sip, Amour

By Christina Kelly

If your date on Valentine’s Day is slurping raw oysters in the half shell and washing it down with a glass of clam nectar in between long, lustful looks across the table, it is a pretty clear indication of what he or she has in mind.

After all, we think of raw oysters and clam nectar as having aphrodisiac powers—mystical properties that create sexual attraction between two people. It doesn’t matter whether it is all in the mind, or backed up by science; we tend to think and feel more romantic when the mood and the right combination of food and wine are served.

And so do restaurants. February is the love month. It contains Valentine’s Day, but it also signals our brain that we are coming out of the darkness of winter as each day gets a little longer, minute by minute. Valentine’s Day is one of the busiest times of the year for restaurants, and many establishments will create special menus, paired with wine or Champagne and finished with something decadently delicious and sweet.

Although Valentine’s Day can cheer up a restaurateur’s cash register, whether you eat in or dine out, it can be a celebration of romance and a needed time-out from a dreary economy and stressful times. Great expectations are often set on an appetizer, dinner plate and dessert during the day reserved for acknowledging someone you like, love, lust after or are simply smitten with.

Keep in mind that the last think you want to do is eat a heavy meal with a huge wine and dessert, unless you plan a long stroll after dinner. A light and flavorful meal is the goal—overeating and imbibing will leave you sleepy as you waddle away from the restaurant or dinner table. Even if you can manage to stay awake after a big, heavy meal to watch a romantic movie, you could end up with “excuse me” burps that squelch the best romantic intentions. So, if a big steak and Cabernet Sauvignon is your passion, have a petit filet mignon, not a 16-ounce Porterhouse.

Oregon has a plethora of fine restaurants, but reservations fill up quickly just weeks before Valentine’s Day, so call as soon as you can. Restaurants like Noble Rot in Portland are preparing special meals for the evening, complete with a glass of sparkling wine to start off the evening.

Courtney Storrs, co-owner of Nobel Rot, says her staff is creating a three-course menu that is more amenable to people in a tough economy and plans to start diners out with a glass of bubbly and an amuse bouche.

“I am a big fan of foie gras and Sauternes for romance,” said Storrs. “It’s a traditional pairing, but before we had a restaurant, that is what my husband and I would start with.”

Many restaurants are offering Valentine’s Day specials, trying to draw patrons back as fewer people are dining out these days. The couple gets a wonderful meal and atmosphere, and the restaurant is supported by local patrons.

Should your wallet feel a little too thin for dining out, preparing a Valentine’s Dinner can be fun, inexpensive and invigorating, depending on the mood your create. You can forgo the box of chocolate for just one truffle, one elegant rose instead of a dozen and create a meal of small tastings with wine instead of a big menu.

Traditional Pairings

If you want to start out with something simple, sushi and sparkling wine could ignite the spark of a romantic dinner. An Oregon Pinot Gris would also work well.

In Oregon, the traditional pairing starts with Pinot Noir and a nice slab of salmon, a richer, fattier fish that embraces the raspberry, strawberry and cherry notes of Pinot Noir. Another fabulous pairing is Pinot Noir and duck breasts. You can find frozen duck breasts at stores such as Fred Meyer for about $6 each and pair with a good $25 Oregon Pinot Noir.

Keep in mind that wine sets the tone for romance and it is where you should spend your money. It is a gift that both can share at the moment, and it is the one time of the year when splurging for that great bottle is encouraged. Don’t go for the single hit—smack it out of the ballpark! Just be smart in your purchase—resist brand names that mean little to you other than some mention in a wine magazine. Research a good wine online, or talk to the wine folks in specialty shops. Save the house wine for parties and barbecues.

Many wine writers agree that Pinot Noir can be a very sexy wine. It provides a velvet silkiness in the mouth and pairs well with seafood and meat dishes. It is a perfect wine for leg of lamb, or perhaps just lamb medallions, to keep the meal small.

Chicken pairs well with many wines, including Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Merlot and Pinot Noir. The key is how the chicken is cooked, and if there is a sauce involved. Sauces with lemon or butter, for example, would pair better with Chardonnay. For those who prefer red wine, the Pinot or a lighter Merlot would shine.

Steak always pairs well with Cabernet Sauvignon or an older vintage Merlot. For white wine drinkers, the pairing becomes tricky, but a big Viognier could work well. Pasta dishes with tomato sauce blend well with a Sangiovese.

It really boils down to what you like, but there are a few rules of thumb. Don’t match strong to delicate—pairing a Cabernet Sauvignon with a delicate fish will destroy all subtle flavors.

Tannins can cut through fat, so a bigger wine will pair well with fattier meats. Rich, creamy sauces need acidity in the wine, as do salads with a vinegar-based dressing.

Finally, if you already have an older vintage wine that you really want to open for the romantic meal, keep the meal simple so you can truly appreciate the bottle and allow it to be the center of attention.

If you have a seafood market nearby and like oysters, purchase a few as an appetizer. Many chefs believe that starting out with such seafood darlings will set the mood for amour later in the evening. 

Christina Kelly is a longtime journalist covering the wine industry. She can be reached at .

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