My wife, Kelly, doesn’t much trust me on the subject of Valentine’s Day dinner. I’ve never lived down our first one when, dressed rakishly for a Damon Runyon experience, I took her to Sam Houston Race Park. Sadly, the evening didn’t match what I’d pictured—at all. The fluorescent lights at the trackside restaurant were a poor substitute for candlelight; the cheap champagne came in plastic glasses; the rose she got free with our dinner was already wilted. Worst of all, in six races, we didn’t pick a single winner.
This year, ahead of this year’s Dia del Amor, I’ve been scouting V-Day restaurants, consulting her on “romantic atmosphere” while looking for the perfect “dinner for two,” which, it so happens, is a hot trend in dining. Chefs are recognizing that some foodstuffs, including poultry, fish, and bone-in steaks, are better cooked whole and split at the table. Entrées for two are becoming almost obligatory on Houston menus, and some of them are pretty spectacular.
Take the four-pound lobster at Palm in the Galleria, which comes to the table split, sectioned, and cracked for easy eating. The white tail flesh and tender claw meat are succulent. Bigger lobsters have tastier meat, and thanks to the size of the legs and joints, the yield on a three- or four-pounder is much higher than that of two smaller lobsters of the same weight.
I like to scoop up the luscious green tomalley from the shell and stir it into my drawn butter for extra flavor. Luckily, at Palm, diners get their own butter. While I find mashing the rich, gooey offal in my drawn butter a sensual experience, my wife doesn’t find lobster liver very romantic.
At Palm, we also sampled a medium-rare, double-cut New York strip with a terrific, crusty outside and a middle that was a little raw for our tastes. We both loved the atmosphere of the newly renovated steakhouse: the dining area has grown, and the waiters now sport white jackets, but the old cartoons have been preserved and reapplied to the walls, and the classic New York steakhouse atmosphere still makes you want to drink a lot of dry martinis.
The charming Montrose Mexican steakhouse La Casa del Caballo offers a four-pound tapa de lomo, or ribeye cap, that may be the biggest steak in town—in fact, it’s probably too big for two, but there’s always a doggie bag. And the three-pound USDA Prime top sirloin will serve a couple nicely. If you like your steak with roasted chiles, spicy salsa, enchiladas, and Mexican rice and beans, this is the place for you.
The best double-cut steak we sampled was at the dazzling new Vallone’s in the Westin Hotel complex at Memorial City. The night of our visit, local celebrities manned the barstools as corks popped all over the gorgeous modern dining room, and Kelly was suitably impressed. The wine list included a good deal on a peppery Rhône red from Saint Joseph that paired stupendously with the beef—a USDA Prime ribeye, a nearly three-pound “tomahawk” cut attached to an 18-inch rib bone that stretched across the table. The steak was carved tableside and served in exquisite slices. Skip the lackluster steak sauces, but don’t miss the incredible buttery spinach.
Peking duck at Arco on Bellaire Blvd. in Chinatown is my idea of a brilliant Valentine’s Day dinner. You can’t order the whole bird by yourself, but it’s perfect for sharing. And the slices of bronzed duck, its crispy skin glistening on the white platter, artfully presented with a bowl of hoisin, shaved greens, and a basketful of soft steamed bao buns, look suitably magnificent.
The restaurant, with its grand chandelier, white tablecloths, and oversized animal-print chairs, is tongue-in-cheek elegant. Kelly gave the ambiance a barely passing grade. She didn’t love the sliced duck; although it’s the best-cooked Peking duck in the city, it’s still a little fatty for some tastes. She liked the second course—dark meat and trimmings from the whole duck stir-fried with lots of vegetables—a lot better.
Dinner for two doesn’t have to be a giant hunk of protein carved tableside, she pointed out. She suggested the Vegetarian Dinner for Two at Nirvana, a cozy little Indian restaurant on Memorial Dr. near Kirkwood. The furnishings are impressive, there’s tasteful art on the walls, and it’s quiet enough for an intimate conversation.
The usual problem with eating at an Indian restaurant after the lunch buffet is closed is that you get stuck with a giant $12 bowl of saag paneer and not much else for dinner. The vegetarian dinner for two at Nirvana solves that problem with a spread that includes papadams, two samosas, and chutneys for an appetizer. The three main dishes are saag paneer; spicy lentils in a cumin and chile gravy; and navrattan korma, vegetables in a rich, creamy cashew sauce. These come with rice and two rounds of naan. Take advantage of the BYOB policy and bring a bottle of bubbly.
Kelly loves Haven, one of the city’s classiest restaurants, and the whole chicken is one of the best items on the menu there. You can order it herb-roasted or Southern-fried. I wish I could tell you what the roasted chicken tastes like, but my weakness for fried-to-order chicken gets in the way of my work sometimes. The chicken comes to the table in eight convenient pieces with two bowls of sides: the creamiest mashed potatoes you’ve ever eaten, a bowl of thick andouille sausage gravy, and some roasted vegetables. Save room for one of Haven’s amazing desserts—I suggest the chocolate icebox pie.
The most common of Houston’s newly popular shared entrees is whole fish, and it’s probably the most practical. A three-to-five-pound fish is perfect for two to share, and several of the city’s best restaurants offer it. Underbelly’s family-style menu offers bycatch fish every day—the cooking style changes, but it’s often a delicious Thai curry. Reef also serves a whole Thai-style fish—combine it with the restaurant’s 3rd Bar seafood tower featuring “all things salty and raw”, and you’ve got a stellar fish dinner for two. (You’ll want to make reservations early if you hope to get into popular spots like these. No matter where you book a table, check to see if your favorite dish will be available—some restaurants offer a limited menu on Valentine’s Day.)
The most famous place in Houston to eat whole fish is Fung’s Kitchen in Sharpstown. At this Hong Kong–style seafood restaurant, the fish, including such rare and delicate species as turbot and ling cod, swim around in tanks. It’s brought to your table alive for viewing, rushed to the kitchen, and then returned to the table—steamed, relieved of bones, and in a light ginger and scallion sauce. Once you’ve eaten fish this fresh, you’ll never forget it. Okay, the palatial, 800-seat dining room, dripping in red velvet and festooned with gold dragons, isn’t exactly intimate, but if Cupid were Chinese, I think you’d find him eating here.
I love the whole red snapper at Tampico, the Mexican fish market on Airline Dr., too. I shared the restaurant’s signature huachinango a la plancha with a colleague recently. She loved the fish, shrimp, and frog’s legs we ordered, but, looking around at the Formica-clad tables of the humble cantina, she admitted she might be a little disappointed if her boyfriend brought her here for Valentine’s Day.
I asked my wife what she thought about February 14 at Tampico when I got home. She said she wouldn’t recommend it to anyone on a first Valentine’s Day date, but since she really loves the fish, she thought it would be an okay choice for us. We’re already married, after all, and it’s better than the racetrack.