Different tastes in movies? Good couples learn to disagree. Can't stand each other's music? That's what headphones are for. But if you two can't come together around common flavors at the dinner table - especially for a special meal - there's gonna be trouble in Romanceville.
The pressure of Valentine's Day doesn't help, and I normally shy away from crowded restaurants in favor of something more intimate at home. But lately, a rising trend in "dishes for two" at local eateries has caught my eye as potential relationship-building material, not just on Feb. 14 but at any time of year. Not only do the best dishes deliver flavors you could not likely re-create at home, but many also offer backstories to fuel conversation, plus a few tests to divine a bit about your partner's personality. Who likes it hot? Who likes it fussy? And who's not afraid to get their hands dirty?
To find out, here are half a dozen of my recent favorites for sharing:
Raw and ready. There's something so sensual about starting a romantic evening with a dozen fresh mollusks - cold and briny, glistening steely-gray in their shells over a bed of ice. And for this, I would send you to the counter of the Oyster House on Sansom Street, where you can savor a dozen of the most expertly shucked wild Pemaquids and Naked Cowboys (also available, by the way, well-packed to go). But ceviche offers the raw factor plus a sultry boost of Caribbean color and chile heat. And few kitchens can still bring it with the vibrance and creativity of Alma de Cuba from Nuevo Latino pioneer Douglas Rodriguez. Go for the $29 ceviche sampler and try three: the approachable Thai Mixto, a medley of crab, shrimp, octopus, and fluke in coconut milk spiked with lemongrass, Thai bird chiles, and herbs; a fluke ceviche, whose Asian brew of yuzu citrus and soy is updated with the bubblelike tapioca pearls infused with jasmine tea; and finally, the "lenguado al fuego," delicate slices of white fish literally on fire, with the dots of flame-orange sweet potato puree, flourishes of smoked sea salt and charred sugar cane, and candied rings of habanero peppers that can light a pilot flame for the night. (Note: The mojitos will only fan the flames, not extinguish them.)
Ceviche sampler, $29 for three, Alma de Cuba, 1623 Walnut St., 215-988-1799.
All tied up. The single most romantic dish in Philadelphia? I vote for the giant noodle at Le Virtù called pasta alla mugnaia, an obscure creation from the Abruzzo region that means in dialect "pasta, the miller's wife way." It's a simple idea, a basic flour and water dough, hand-rolled by chef Joe Cicala and his crew, from a single ball that begins with a hole in the middle like a doughnut and then gets stretched and stretched. But this is carb-romance at its best, reaching lengths of at least 30 feet for a couple (and up to 100 for groups). The noodle is brought to the table in a shiny copper pot and served on a wooden board for the ultimate rustic feast. You can choose from two sauces, a hearty lamb ragu, or a basic aglio-olio of garlic, oil, and pepper flakes. I say go minimalist. The ropelike pasta, which is a little thicker than a Japanese udon with considerably more chew, is hearty enough, with a texture you don't want to obscure. Plus, as your forks tug and pull that strand from opposite sides - what symbolism! - you won't need the saucy distraction. It's also all the better to take advantage of the colorful dried and fresh hot peppers in a basket served with scissors alongside. Daringly snip on more heat as you go. If Disney had gotten hold of la mugnaia, Lady and the Tramp would likely still be at dinner, waiting to meet halfway for a kiss over that final strand. It will take two good eaters here to make it that far.
Pasta alla mugnaia, $18 a person, Le Virtù, 1927 E. Passyunk Ave., 215-271-5626.
Hands-on bird. I'm a believer in the seductive power of simplicity, and what could be more basic than a perfect roast chicken, right? But to make it worthwhile in a restaurant, it has to be special. And the roast chicken for two at Vernick Food & Drink is just that, a three- pound-plus beauty that gets brined in cider, soy, and kombu overnight, slowly cooked in a high-tech industrial steam oven, and then roasted crisp to a mahogany-colored finish over shishito peppers in the restaurant's wood-fired hearth at 800 degrees. (If you've got that kind of equipment at home, and know how to use it, I'm coming over for Valentine's Day.) Some guests send the chicken back to the kitchen for carving, but chef Gregory Vernick loves presenting the bird whole "because it's just so pure," and that is the best way to preserve the juiciness of what is easily one of the best chickens I've ever tasted. Plus, important questions are answered. Does your partner head for the dark meat first? Best to know early on. Also: If you've got a carver, you've got a keeper. Knowing how to deftly strip a carcass is a life skill on a par with being able to do your own plumbing. But it's not always about finesse. A whole chicken can be the ultimate invitation to a more primal, sensual meal. "I watch people tear into it," says Vernick, "and usually after five minutes, the men put their forks down first, and begin pulling pieces off medieval style. Next thing you know, they're feeding each other the oyster."
Whole chicken for two, $45, Vernick Food & Drink, 2031 Walnut St., 267-639-6644.
UnForkettable feast. If you're game for a bird more complex than chicken, the whole-duck feast at Fork is another level of poultry commitment. Multi-dish, whole-animal "feasts" have quickly become a signature of new chef Eli Kulp's nightly repertoire at this ever-more-polished Old City standby. But there is something majestic about the whole duck, which gets the Chinatown treatment - aged for a week, blown up with a tire pump, dipped in boiling vinegar water, lacquered for days in maltose - before it is cut up and cooked for an array of different presentations. The roasted-then-seared breasts are wrapped in Sichuan peppercorn-crusted skin that is as crisp as a caramelized cracker. There's duck prosciutto and grilled duck heart salad. Duck confit is tossed with croutons and bitter greens. But the highlight is already one of my favorite food moments of the year - lavish meatballs made from ground duck and cream-soaked bread, simmered in a Venetian agrodolce enriched with liver. Always a splurge when ordered normally a la carte - $88 for the duck - it is available for an upcharge on the prix-fixe Valentine's Day menu, bumping up the price to $95 per person.
Fork, 306-308 Market St. 215-625-9425.
Provence in a bowl. Shareable dishes have also been a core at the Mildred in South Philadelphia, where the cast-iron Staub crockery has been an inspiration for much of the menu, from wild pheasants roasted over lady apples on a spit to suckling pig shoulders. One of the best has been chef Mike Santoro's take on bouillabaisse, a southern French classic that's so hard to find done well because of the challenges of cooking multiple kinds of seafood to ideal doneness. The beauty in this big iron soup bowl for two, though, is that not only does Santoro pull off perfectly searing the cockles, scallops, prawns, and fish to finish. He also gets the important part right, too, with considerable work on the foundation of the stew to assure that the broth is deeply woven with the well-steeped flavors of fish, fennel, and saffron. The roast pepper and garlic rouille-dabbed toasts are also serious. If you're up for the multistep procedure of marinating, stewing, ricing, and reducing, try the recipe here. If not, pull up a couple of seats by the Mildred's fireplace lounge and let the aromas of a Provence kitchen fill your bowl.
Bouillabaisse for two, $44, the Mildred, 824 S. Eighth St., 267-687-1600.
Baba Bec. Molten-centered chocolate lava cakes are so 1999. I'm pulling for the outside-in love of chocolate-soaked babas to be the next big thing, especially if Jennifer Smith has anything to say about it. That's exactly what Le Bec Fin's pastry chef has dreamed up for her Valentine's Day finale, adding the grown-up touches of Chambord-soaked Michigan dried cherries, vivid coffee ice cream, and frothy pink port sabayon, perfectly paired with a couple of glasses of Porto Kopke 20-year-old Tawny.. Just in case that's not enough chocolate for you, the bowl she serves it in is cast from edible Michel Cluizel 76 percent bittersweet. Smith's most adorable touch, though, may be her heart-shaped "conversation piece" macaroons. "Kiss Me," says one of the raspberry-filled macaroon hearts. Let's just hope someone gets the message before these whimsical delights are devoured.
Chocolate-soaked babas for two with wine pairing, part of $180 Valentine's Day menu, Le Bec Fin, 1523 Walnut St., 215-567-1000, or a $30 supplement to regular menu upstairs Friday and Saturday, and for $30 a la carte downstairs at Georges, through the weekend. Conversation macaroons sold retail at restaurant, $12.95 for six.
Chef Michael Santoro's Bouillabaisse
Makes 8 portions
2 whole fish, about 1 1/2 pounds each, scaled, cleaned of gills and guts, and cut into 3-inch chunks (daurade, porgy, striped bass, or black bass suggest-ed; avoid oily fish)
For the marinade:
2 tablespoons ground coriander
1/2 head fennel, sliced fine
1 whole star anise
8 threads saffron
5 basil leaves
3 zest strips each of lemon, orange, lime
1 teapoon whole fennel seed
1 medium Spanish onion, sliced fine
1 leek, rinsed well and sliced fine
2 cloves whole garlic
1 baseball-sized Yukon Gold potato, peeled and sliced
1/4 cup brandy
1 cup olive oil, divided evenly for marinade and fish cooking
4 tablespoons tomato paste
1/4 bottle dry white wine
3 quarts fish stock (homemade preferred, but store-bought fish stock or vegetable or chicken stock are also fine)
3 tablespoons Pernod
2 tablespoons lemon juice
Salt and pepper, to taste
2 pounds of small mussels
2 tablespoons olive oil, for sauteing
16 large shrimp
8 fillets of boneless skin-on bass (about 4 ounces each)
8 U-12 scallops
Salt and pepper, to taste
Note: A ricer is the preferred piece of equipment for getting this recipe right.
1. For marinade: Place coriander, fennel and anise in a cheesecloth sachet, then combine the rest of the ingredients, including 1/2 cup of the olive oil, together with the fish chunks, to marinate for 24 hours, reserving ½ cup of the olive oil and the tomato paste.
2. The next day, remove fish from vegetables. Lightly season with salt and pepper and sear the fish in the remaining olive oil in a large Dutch oven. Once the fish is seared, remove and reserve. Discard excess fat from the pan. Add the reserved marinated vegetables and roast on medium heat for 10 minutes until lightly browned. Return fish to pan. Add tomato paste and cook until it gives a nutty flavor, about two minutes. Add wine and reduce by about one half, about two minutes.
3. Add fish stock and simmer for 1 hour, skimming impurities as they float to the top. Strain broth, pressing all solids (including fish) with a ladle through a colander as much as possible. (Or if you have a ricer, mill all the solids through the smallest-hole die.) Return strained broth and riced solids to pan, and begin reducing by one- quarter to intensify flavors. Recipe can be made in advance up to this point. Broth can be cooled and reserved in fridge for up to two days. When ready to serve, heat and season with Pernod, lemon, salt, and pepper to taste.
4. While the broth simmers, finish seafood for garnish. Add the mussels to the broth until the shells open. Season remaining seafood with salt and pepper, and saute shrimp, fish, and scallops in hot olive oil in a pan on high heat, for about 1 minute on each side.
5. Portion into warm bowls, top with rouille-smeared croutons, and serve.
Per serving: 493 calories, 66 grams protein, 12 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams sugar, 16 grams fat, 281 milligrams cholesterol, 1,167 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.
Michael Santoro's Rouille
Makes enough to garnish 8 portions
1 red pepper, roasted and pureed
1 hard-boiled egg
1 clove roasted garlic
1 teaspoon sherry vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 slice of country sourdough bread with crust, dried
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 cup neutral oil (vegetable or blended)
2/3 of a baguette, sliced on bias into rounds, lightly toasted
1. Combine red pepper, egg, garlic, vinegar, salt, bread, and pepper in a food processor (or mortar and pestle) and puree until smooth. While the blade is turning, drizzle in oil slowly to emulsify, until thick like mayonnaise. (Will keep refrigerated for up to two weeks.)
2. To present, smear rouille atop croutons and serve floating in individual serving bowls atop the bouillabaisse. Use two to three per portion.
Per serving: 262 calories, 4 grams protein, 16 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram sugar, 4 grams fat, 20 milligrams cholesterol, 475 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.
Contact Craig LaBan at email@example.com.