February 14th, a day full of champagne, roses, and romantic meals. But did you know that Valentines Day is one of the worst nights of the year to go out to dinner? It’s true. Chefs, restaurants, and foodies all hate, hate, hate Valentines Day out. Why? Well, you have restaurants looking to take advantage of poor saps trying to impress their significant others, churning out food for the mass quantities of people coming in for multiple seatings. They put together unimaginative, “romantically themed” prix fixe menus that are totally sub-par, and they get away with it because most people going out to dinner on Valentines Day, don’t really know the difference. I know this sounds harsh and even makes me sound a little pompous, but I swear I didn’t pioneer this concept. Anthony Bourdain goes on for like an entire chapter in Kitchen Confidential about how poorly restaurants treat their guests on big holidays like Valentines and New Years.
I also attribute my hatered of restaurants on Valentine’s Day to some previous V-Day disasters. There was the time in high school when my date tried to take me to Applebees. (We broke up shortly after. I mean, come on, at least spring for Chillis!) Another year, it snowed (like an inch) and my date didn’t want to drive, so we missed the restaurant reservation and ended up eating Domino’s on the floor of his dorm room. And the best of the worst, the Valentine’s Day when my date drank an entire pitcher of margaritas and passed out…at the table. True story. Let’s hope none of them read the blog.
So to avoid reliving past, painful restaurant memories, Matt and I decided to forgo slurping down under seasoned lobster bisque in a crowded restaurant, and go out to dinner prior to Valentines Day. Then, last night as my present to Matt, I cooked up a Valentine’s Day meal that I think could rival the early seating at Le Cirque. I started thinking about the menu last week and decided to do a take on the completely overdone, yet classic Valentine’s day prix fixe menu. I’d be willing to bet my rent check that last night you would have found some sort of seafood soup, followed by a petite filet, capped off by molten chocolate cake on 9 out of 10 restaurant menus.
But here’s where I’ll take off my pompous pants. I really like all those dishes. They’re yummy, especially the molten chocolate cake. So I decided to reinvent that classic meal and put my own spin on the run of the mill prix fixe. Although I wouldn’t do a thing to the molten lava cake, you don’t mess with perfection.
Lately, I had been seeing butter poached lobster all over menus and food blogs. I immediately knew that this had to be the centerpiece of the meal. After doing some research, I learned that this technique was invented by Thomas Keller, James Beard Award Winning chef, owner of The French Laundry in Napa (renowned as the country’s best restaurant) and Per Se here in NYC (arguably the best restaurant in Manhattan). In short, this guy knows what he’s doing. At The French Laundry the butter poached lobster is served over a bed of creamy lobster bisque orzo and marscarpone cheese. I saw it described in a blog as lobster bisque married with mac’ and cheese…um…SIGN ME UP.
So then I moved on to the take on the filet. Since the butter poached lobster and orzo would be the main dish, I started to brainstorm an appetizer using a really good cut of meat. A few weeks ago at dinner, we ordered beef carpaccio and Matt fell in love with it. I knew it would be a little complicated to do, but totally worth it. So with my menu all planned out I headed to my fish monger on 1st ave to get me some lobsters for out love fest.
The prep for this meal, was, to put it lightly…involved. There were a lot of steps, a lot of time consuming tasks, and a lot of building of flavors. But if you ask me, the pillars of fine French cooking are technique, time, patience, and butter…lots and lots of butter. I started by steeping the lobsters for a few minutes in boiling water, just enough time to allow the meat to separate from the shells, but not enough time to cook it. I then went to town removing the meat from the shells, which is a much more complicated task when you’re trying to take it out in one piece and have it look pretty, as opposed to going to town on it with a bib tied around your neck, sitting out on your back patio.
Once I had the tail and claw meat out, I used the shells to make lobster stock for the orzo. I fried the shells in oil until they turned bright red to prep them for the stock. I’m not really sure why, but Thomas Keller said to do it, so I did it. I added some veggies and water and let it reduce for hours. The apartment smelled like a clambake off the coast of Maine and it was glorious.
While the stock was bubbling away I got to work on the carpaccio. Now you would think, it’s raw beef, that must be an easy dish, no cooking required. Yea…I quickly learned that was not the case. I started with a really nice piece of tenderloin, trimmed off all the fat and silver skin and then put it in the freezer so it would be easier to slice into thin pieces. When you take it out, you slice it REALLY thin, then pound out each little slice with a meat mallet. But since it’s really nice, tender, meat, you can’t just go to town on it with the meat mallet like you would with a eye round for braciole. You have to basically kiss it with the meat mallet and gently and kindly ask the meat to please flatten out. It has to be so thin you can almost see through it. It’s definitely an exercise in self control. But once that parts done, you just serve it on a really cold plate that’s been chilling in the fridge and dress it with some olive oil, balsamic, capers, and shaved parmigiano reggiano. Mmmm…I really wish I had leftovers.
From there it was pretty easy, I just boiled up some orzo. Made a lobster bisque with the stock, stirred in some mascarpone cheese, heated a pot full of butter, and finished cooking the lobster meat in there. And oh yea, made molten chocolate cake from scratch. The lobster dish came out perfectly and the parmesean crisp and the fried lobster roe, really made it look like a restaurant quality dish. The whole meal was exactly as I had imagined and Matt absolutely loved it. So even though it took two days to prepare and lobsters don’t exactly come cheap in Manhattan…in February, it was worth every ounce of effort and every penny I spent. Because, as I say so often, cooking is about love, it’s about making the people who are special in your life feel happy. Cooking for the boy I love made this the best Valentines Day ever. So Happy Valentines Day everyone…especially you Matty!