Best restaurants for Valentine's Day photo
(Matt McClain/For The Washington Post)

Best restaurants for Valentine's Day

By Tom Sietsema  |  Updated 02/01/2012

Romance comes in all shapes and sizes, a range of colors and price points, which is why I tailor my response to the inevitable question I get this time of year - "Where should I go for Valentine's Day?" - by posing a question of my own: What kind of diner are you?

Some of you will be content only with sprays of flowers in the room, champagne in the glass and lobster on the menu on Feb. 14. Others would rather toast their squeeze with some Foster the People songs, a cold beer and grub priced to let you pay your rent next month. Then there are those, like me, who are happy with great food wherever it might occur (bonus points for a neighborhood place that has seasons of good vibes behind it).

Folks, I've got you all covered.

 

Cashion's Eat Place

Washington, DC

For the food fan:

If Cashion's Eat Place were a magazine, it would be Saveur, the worldly periodical that's smart without being smugand as eager to look back as to look forward with its food. Opened in 1995 and helmed by John Manolatos since 2007, the softly lighted Adams Morgan destination is a sublime example of how to mature with grace.

I always order a few more dishes than usual for two from the menu, which is packed with interesting choices. Goat cheese souffle and veal sweetbreads with garlicky spinach make regular appearances; a recent creamless soup of three squashes is brighter than it sounds, thanks to the kaffir lime in the bowl. Someone at the table should seize on the chef's heritage: order the goat, a Greek mini-feast of spit-roasted meat - tender shreds punctuated by crisp ends - sparked with cilantro and chilies offered with pillowy flatbread and cool tzatziki sauce.

Now and then, the kitchen reminds me it's human. It's fun to see turkey on the winter menu, but not when the braised "shank" is sapped of its juice. The accompanying broad, house-made noodles, however, are divine. Come to think of it, any of the pastas here are worth your taste buds' attention. A gracious and knowing staff discusses the food with the sort of pride that comes more from the heart than from a desire to get rich and famous.

Before I fell for a reluctant gourmet, Cashion's was my go-to date spot; these days, the restaurant is where I head when I'm meeting a fellow chow hound or, really, anytime I want to be reminded of the power of a great meal.

 

Toki Underground

Washington, DC

For the hipster:

"Huan ying!" (Welcome!) cry the cooks from the open kitchen as yet another cluster of hopeful diners appears at the top of the stairs of the second-floor Toki Underground.

From its April opening, the Taiwanese-style ramen shop acquired a cult following that knows to be in line by 5 p.m. or risk an uncertain outdoor wait. There are fewer than 30 stools, all but a few squeezed in front of a narrow ledge that rings most of the room.

Strapping bowls of steaming noodles from Taipei-born, Tokyo- and Woodbridge-raised Erik Bruner-Yang are the lure, but the setting registers a 10 on the fun meter, too. Skateboards stand in for guardrails, interior shingles and footrests. Japanese anime art serves as wallpaper, and red paper lanterns dangle from faux tree branches, bathing the area in a dreamy glow. Meanwhile, the ribs of wood above your head suggest a place that has been around a very long time, which is precisely the tone Bruner-Yang, 27, wants to foster. "My father's noodle shop," imagines the son of a journalist. "Old World." For sure, no one would confuse Toki Underground, whose chef shops daily, with the cliches of P.F. Chang's.

With fewer than a dozen appetizers (mostly dumplings, the best of which are lightly fried) and bowls of ramen, the menu is an easy read. Each of the five regular soups has its merits; all but the vegetarian choice are based on a broth made with pork bones, which impart an earthy milkiness to the eating. The two ramen I tend to spoon into most often are curry chicken Hakata, floating crisp nuggets of spiced chicken and pickled ginger, and the meatless masumi, packed with a garden of vegetables including squash, seaweed and mushrooms, its broth dark and intense. Temper the heat with a silky side of tofu topped with shaved bonito. Keep dessert in mind: Snickerdoodles take well to chocolate and kimchi pepper flakes.

The food is meant to be slurped with libations, such as a smoky, bourbon-based Toki Monster. "It will be just a minute," the bartender says, for the kitchen to crisp the bite of pork belly that lands on my rim as a garnish.

 

Plume at the Jefferson Hotel

Washington, DC

For the traditionalist:

Almost everything about dinner at Plume, in the sumptuous Jefferson Hotel, is designed to make you want to come back for your next anniversary or pay raise, whichever comes first.

Pools of space separate one beautifully dressed table from another, yet the servers in bespoke suits are never far from granting your next wish. Chandeliers sparkle from coffered ceilings. A fire crackles in the hearth. The chairs are so plush, you are tempted to curl up and take a nap, but the eyes stay open to examine the silk wallpaper that sets you in 18th-century Monticello. Your ears are soothed with classical guitar music, a welcome break from those concrete floors and ear-splitting soundtracks that accompany meals at so much of the dining competition.

Your first request might be for a flashlight rather than a cocktail; I love gentle lighting, but the main dining room is so dim, it's hard to read the menu. Your second entreaty should be for a bowl of risotto sweetened with Maryland crab and a froth of crab stock and cream. The appetizer is crisscrossed with infant vegetables and distinguished with a garnish of edible gold leaf. Marriott this is not. Chestnut soup is more demure, shy on its brandy but substantial with nuggets of sweetbreads in the blend.

That said, Plume is the rare restaurant where entrees outshine first courses. Fashion trends are bypassed in favor of tradition. Picture lobster Thermidor and a proper veal chop, the meat cooked just the shade you ask and served as a fan of slices on the bone. To the side of the chop are splashes of mustard-punched jus and a precise line of marble-size poached apples alternating with crisp potato croquettes. It's all quite satisfying, especially in the company of a Spanish rioja that goes down, just as the sommelier promised, like a French Burgundy. Scored roast duck is a fine fowl draped on a bed of caramelized endive and nudged with a cinnamon-spiced huckleberry sauce (hold the dry duck confit, thanks).

The cheese cart is one of the city's more impressive. Be sure to include in any mix of five (for $18) the delightfully pungent and runny Epoisses from France.

Plume is thoughtful right to the finish, dropping off one-bite confections after dessert is cleared and ushering you into the night with a ribboned scroll detailing the wines you drank.

The cooking might not always woo you, but the setting will.

 

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