CALL IT A romance of star-crossed plates. Mike Hartnett‘s first attempt at cooking a romantic meal for girlfriend Devin loops endlessly in his head, a love disaster on par with the final scene of “Romeo and Juliet.” “I didn’t really know how to cook much at the time, but I thought it would be fun to try chicken pot pie,” says Hartnett, 25, who lives in Adams Morgan. But just as the pie bubbled golden brown, the meal, quite literally, took a nosedive. With Devin looking on, Hartnett reached into the oven to pull out the pan — which promptly slipped from his hands, splattering its contents against the oven door. “Not to let the food go to waste, I actually tried scraping it off the door. We ended up eating it,” he says. “It was so embarrassing! She felt bad, but I was devastated. We had only been dating a few months.” Nearly five years later, Hartnett’s ego has rebounded, and the couple cook together often. (And, yes, they’ve even revisited chicken pot pie once or twice.)
Trying to get to a man’s or woman’s heart by putting a homemade meal in his or her stomach is a time-honored dating tradition. “Cooking is a really personal way to connect,” explains Brendan Cox, executive chef at DC Coast (1401 K St. NW; 202-216-5988), which recently offered a men’s-only Cupid’s Cooking Class, featuring a menu of risotto, slow-cooked salmon and layered chocolate mousse. The main lesson: Dining a deux doesn’t have to be a recipe for disaster — regardless of who’s at the burner.
Whether you’re hoping to woo Mr. Right with your Bobby Flay filleting — or, er, forgot to book Valentine’s Day reservations — experts say simple, heartfelt cooking often amounts to the most romantic dinner. Still, “a special occasion is not the time to go out on a limb to try something you’ve never done,” says Matt Moore, author of the forthcoming guy cucina guide “Have Her Over for Dinner” ($25, Last Resort Press). In other words, trot out that bookmarked mole poblano recipe another night.
“You’re the key component, so you have to be seated more than you’re flying around,” says Patrick O’Connell, chef and proprietor at the ultra-romantic Inn at Little Washington in Washington, Va. Rather, craft your feast based on a merging of your honey’s palate and your cooking repertoire. Even your signature mac and cheese can be sweet if you know your honey hearts dairy goodness above all else. (Though chefs with romance on the menu might want to stick to lighter fare to fuel, ahem, post-dinner plans.)
But while playing it safe at the stove is smart, that doesn’t mean you should scrimp on the details. For Moore, that means letting a few high-quality ingredients take the lead. Think top-shelf salt and olive oil or a fresh piece of fish. “The most elegant dishes are ones with very few ingredients done really well, like raw oysters with pristine garnishes — that’s sexy,” says Dan Giusti, executive chef at Georgetown‘s 1789 Restaurant (1226 36th St. NW; 202-965-1789). He suggests laying oysters on the half shell on a bed of salt and herbs, paired with champagne or sparkling wine, for an easy but swank appetizer.
Or, get started with an abundant spread of no-fuss antipastos, from marinated mushrooms and olives to salami and artisanal cheeses, washed down with a festive cocktail or generous pour of red wine. Then if your main course dish takes extra-long or — gasp! — burns, your hunger pangs will already be sated (and your date already impressed). Ensure your meal ends on a delicious note by prepping a make-ahead dessert, or scooping a bowl of ice cream topped with warm sauce and fresh fruit. Even easier: Pick up a to-go slice of tiramisu from your date’s favorite trattoria.
“It’s not about being fussy or complicated, but just sharing food and enjoying your time together,” says Meshelle Armstrong, co-owner of Alexandria‘s Restaurant Eve (110 S. Pitt St.; 703-706-0450).
Even so, an unexpected splurge will keep your date on his or her toes, whether it’s a dollop of libido-boosting caviar or made-from-scratch linguine. Truth be told, chefs say a little amazement is the true secret to dewy-eyed wining and dining, no perfectly cracked creme brulee necessary.
“So much doesn’t depend entirely on cooking prowess, but about how much you can allow yourself to have an imagination,” O’Connell says. Look to your dining companion for inspiration, be it a nostalgic love for Venice (hint: serve calamari, don a black-and-white striped shirt and straw hat) or a top-secret pining to work on a cruise ship (three words: the buffet overfloweth).
“Most people try to be practical, but you can’t be,” O’Connell says. “Even if it’s sitting on hay bales, you’ve created a surprise — something that’s funny, charming and not predictable.”
SETTING THE MOOD
» GET LIT: “Valentine’s Day is all about being romantic and sensitive,” says Lulu Powers, author of the forthcoming “Lulu Powers Food to Flowers” ($27, William Morrow). “Even if you have to use birthday candles to set the scene, it’s worth it.” Fire code sticklers might install a dimmer switch, or just swap out those bright CFLs for smooth, dim 40-watt bulbs.
» GET OFF TO A SWEET START: Even your Craigslist-scored table for two can be transformed into a romantic tableau with a few easy mood enhancers, whether your style skews simple or sumptuous. “No special touch will go unnoticed,” Powers says. Her top hosting tip: “Give them a drink when they walk in the door.”
» SHARING MEANS CARING: There’s a reason tapas restaurants always exude a sexy flair. “Serve something you can feed to the other person, even if it’s a platter full of food you can serve in bites,” suggests Rahman “Chef Rock” Harper, winner of the third season of “Hell’s Kitchen” and adjunct professor at Stratford University in Falls Church. “Sharing food is engaging and a little playful.”
» CUPID IS IN THE DETAILS: For bonus points, finesse your pad with subtle extras. “Set the mood with little touches in places where you would least likely expect something fabulous — it could be flowers in the bathroom or a present on her pillow,” advises Christina Canalez Presock, director of catering at the historic Willard InterContinental hotel (1401 Pennsylvania Ave. NW; 202-628-9100).
» GO WILD: When the Inn at Little Washington’s Patrick O’Connell plans a dinner date, he dreams big. “You have to transport people somewhere they’ve never been,” he says, which might translate to a Marrakech-style tent in the living room or opulent candles and mirrors a la Versailles. “The further you can get them from their everyday mentality, the happier they’re going to be.”
» CROON AND SWOON: “There’s so much power in a classic song, dim lighting and a single flower,” says Matt Moore, author of “Have Her Over for Dinner” ($25, Last Resort Press).
» Recipe File: Pan-seared Scallops with Red Pepper Cream over Orzo Pasta
Written by Express contributor Katie Knorovsky
Illustration by Kevin Rechin