Valentine's dinners for real-life relationships
You and your significant other are not a Hallmark-card couple. You don’t need saccharine protestations of love, or overblown romantic dinners that involve a stuffy restaurant vibe and elaborate table service. C’mon. You’ve seen each other in scrubby clothing, fed each other chicken soup when colds have struck, and basically soldiered on, lovingly and respectfully, through the proverbial good and bad times. Valentine’s Day is approaching, and you want to go somewhere like your relationship: solid, unassuming, with more than a hint of delicious pleasure.
If you like to share, and laugh at those who take themselves too seriously, izakayas have the casual fun dining experience mastered. There’s boisterous staff, plenty of reasonably priced small plates, and laid-back, intimate décor. Visit Suika (1626 West Broadway), where quirky sake-bottle chandeliers perfectly suit the lively energy of the place. During the week leading up to Valentine’s Day, there’s a four-course menu option ($25) that features items like beef short ribs in sweet balsamic vinegar sauce, or order a bunch of dishes from the regular menu, like their oxtail-and-scallion ramen or tako karaage (deep-fried octopus).
You might not be in the mood for postmeal action after the special Valentine’s menu at NOA Pan Asian Bistro (3346 Cambie Street), but your stomachs will sure be happy. From now until February 15, for $55, the two of you get a set meal of 14 tapas, from grilled okra to fried banana with vanilla ice cream. Or dig in to the regular offerings with dishes like assorted seafood in a Thai yellow curry or Indonesian chicken fried rice. “Lots of sharing is the key to NOA,” says general manager Joe Kwan over the phone.
If you want to add a little heat to your relationship (and your food), there are other options. “You don’t have to dress up. Just come as you are,” says Joel Villanueva, co-owner of Primos Mexican Grill (1509 West 12th Avenue), during a phone chat. Not only is the 63-year-old restaurant a labour of love, it’s also where Villanueva’s parents fell in love when his mother, who was working there, spied his father delivering tortilla-chip supplies. Villanueva recommends starting the celebration with a one-litre strawberry bomba (like a margarita), before sharing a sizzling pan of prawns in garlic butter sauce; a vegetable, chicken, or beef fajita; and battered, deep-fried ice cream. (Mains run $14.95 to $22.50.)
At Jolly’s Indian Bistro (2928 West 4th Avenue) chef and owner Jolly Kumar is sweetening his prix fixe Valentine’s option with desserts such as the syrup-soaked doughnut holes, gulab jamun. The menu ($59 per couple) allows each of you to choose an appetizer like samosas and a main like butter chicken, in addition to dessert. Even better, he’s throwing in a bottle of wine per couple. Over the phone, Kumar says his restaurant is great for whispering sweet nothings—or discussing who’s going to take out the garbage. “Couples always sit here for a long time. People like to sit here and talk. And I think, why not?”
If your relationship is about intimacy, warmth, and plenty of substance, you can’t beat bistros, which offer good food in unpretentious neighbourhood surroundings. The Drive’s French/Tunisian Carthage Café (1851 Commercial Drive) is featuring a February 14–only three-course menu ($60 per person) with selections like a spinach and scallop flan, pan-seared duck in Frangelico sauce, and a trio of chocolate mousses. Central Bistro in the West End (1072 Denman Street) is doing a $90-per-couple, February 14–only set menu that includes oysters Rockefeller, spinach and pancetta salad, a sharing plate of beef tenderloin with a black-currant demi-glace, sautéed garlic prawns, truffle mashed potatoes, and grilled asparagus, and chocolate raspberry profiteroles. Or go for something from the regular menu, like a more casual barbecue lambwich with melted Swiss cheese, sautéed onions, and peppers.
Other bistros are keeping Valentine’s Day simple with their usual selections plus a few surprise creations. At Café Régalade (2836 West 4th Avenue), start with lamb meatballs with lemon chutney ($12.95) before going on to a classic, like boeuf bourguignon ($21.50). Owner Steeve Raye will also dream up romance-inspired desserts. “There’ll be something with chocolate for sure,” he says, laughing over the phone. “Chocolate and love go together. You can’t really avoid it.”
Chef Richard Vilus says Pair Bistro (3763 West 10th Avenue) is for a certain type of couple: “They’re more relaxed, ready to go out and have a really good meal in a relaxed, warm atmosphere.” In other words, it’s a cozy 40-seat restaurant that sources topnotch local, seasonal ingredients. Over the phone, Vilus suggests the roasted UBC Farm garlic with goat cheese and baguette for two ($13), as well as the couple-friendly feast platter ($59) with wapiti (deer), local catch, Fraser Valley game hen, wind-dried salmon candy, and a host of local veggies. Ordering the roasted garlic will be the ultimate sign that your love has gone beyond the initial overwhelming intensity and become oh-so-sweet and mellow.