Harried waiters, irritable chefs, packed restaurants—there are a lot of reasons why Valentine’s Day can be a miserable night to dine out. So stay in! After all, good food trounces baubles and flowers in the romance department.
To help you channel your inner Cupid, I asked Jen Pelka—an old friend and founder of romantic new San Francisco Champagne bar The Riddler for her dream V-Day dinner menu.
Mingling high- and low-end is a Pelka signature, so for the first course, there’s “No question: caviar, crème fraîche, potato chips, and minced chives.” On the affordable end of the spectrum, look for whitefish or smoked trout roe—the latter is “very pretty, bright orange, and looks great.” Or splurge on tiny, briny black eggs of hackleback or paddlefish. Want to go over the top? Think: osetra. It’ll run you more than $100 an ounce, but as Pelka says, it’s the “kobe beef of caviar,” rich and luxurious.
Set each ingredient out in a small bowl with—ideally—mother-of-pearl, wooden or bamboo spoons. (FYI Metal spoons react with the caviar.) Splurge on high-quality crème fraîche, but not potato chips: “We’ve done countless blind taste tests,” says Pelka, and “Lay’s wins, every time.” This appetizer is a hit at the bar and when she entertains at home. If you’re going to splurge on Champagne, do so here, and go for a spendy half bottle of Krug or some other good Champagne, or a less-pricey Crémant made in the Loire or Bourgogne regions.
“I always go for a one-pot meal that allows you to get most of the cooking done earlier in the day,” says Pelka. “Then you have it in the oven and when it’s done it’s done: You don’t have to be slaving over the stove or futzing around.” And yes, that way you get more quality time with your sweetheart! Her go-to main course is a spin on one of British chef Yotam Ottolenghi’s recipes from his Jerusalem: A Cookbook. Wonderfully fragrant, simple, and luxurious, it’s a one-pot entrée mingling basmati rice, tons of fresh herbs such as dill and cilantro, cardamom, cloves, and cinnamon. (You can find the complete recipe here.) Pelka swaps out the chicken for pork sausage, and amps up the called for yogurt with cumin and salt. As a pairing, she suggests “a great-quality white Burgundy Meursault or a Pinot Noir from Washington or Oregon with juicy fruit.”
It’s practically a rule that your Valentine’s dinner end with a rich chocolate dessert. Pelka is smitten with a sultry, citrus-laced dark chocolate pot de crème that her chef Shannon Waters dreamt up for The Riddler. Pelka suggests pairing it with a half-bottle of slightly sweet sparkling rosé that will complement the dessert’s notes of Grand Marnier, orange zest and unctuous dark chocolate. Served in (unused) caviar tins topped with dark chocolate pearls that look like, you guessed it, caviar, this is a sweet way to end the meal on an unexpected, decadent, and yes—sophisticated—note.
Dark Chocolate Pots de Crème
By Shannon Waters
3 oz (90 grams) Dark chocolate, chopped.75 oz (20 grams) Grand Marnier1 tsp Orange zest2 Egg yolks2.5 tbsp (39 grams) Sugarsmall pinch SaltScant .75 cup (164 grams) heavy cream.33 cup (83 grams) Milk.25 teaspoon (1 gram) Vanilla extract2 Tbsp Dark chocolate pearls
Add chocolate, Grand Marnier, and orange zest to blender and blend until crumbled. Set aside. Add egg yolks to large bowl, and set aside. In medium-sized, heavy bottomed pot, heat sugar, salt, cream, milk and vanilla over medium heat, stirring frequently. Once sugar is dissolved, add hot mixture to yolks slowly, in quarter cup increments, stirring after each addition so yolks do not curdle. Return mixture to pot and cook until thick, about 2-3 minutes. Pour mix over chocolate, and carefully blend. Pour mix into tins or ramekins and allow to cool, uncovered, in refrigerator for four hours, until set. Just before serving, sprinkle on enough dark chocolate pearls to cover the top of the tin. Serve chilled. This recipe makes five small (250-gram) servings.