Foodstuff: For the love of the table
Is there such a thing as an inherently romantic food?
I am not a woman easily wooed.
Unless, of course, I am at the table. The great loves of my life have rarely met me more than a few inches from fork and knife and spoon, and I am among the loudest advocates for dining as a vessel of romance.
But these dalliances have most always involved just one beating heart. The muscle aches for cheeses, butters and cream bases, dairy being one of my lengthiest and most torrid love affairs; I have been known to react in a way someone more proper might consider uncouth at the first taste of a flavor perfected or sight of a new dish unearthed from the kitchen.
It’s why I’m a bit of a skeptic when presented with foods that promise to bring romance to a table set for two, given that my most enduring relationship in such matters has been the one between me and the plate, not the dining partner.
Yet there are the accouterments and the bevy of dining specials, awaiting their moment to shine when St. Valentine presides over Feb. 14 and sometimes the days that surround it, too. Chocolate and red wine are so synonymous with the holiday that to not mention them here would be an act of journalistic negligence; the adventurous and audacious know that oysters, too, are a natural aphrodisiac.
These foods are sensual, though, not quite so lovey-dovey. The curious cynic of a food writer in me wondered: Is there such a thing as an inherently romantic food?
Michael Vignola certainly believes it. As the corporate chef for the Catch Steak enterprise that opened an Aspen location on Hopkins Avenue this season, he had a hand in developing the restaurant’s Valentine’s Day specials along with culinary director John Beatty and executive chef Ryan Brooks, who works under the direction of Vignola and Beatty. (Catch Steak also has a location in New York; it’s the sister concept of Catch, with locations in New York, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Playa del Carmen, Mexico.)
“I definitely think there are inherently sexy foods or loving foods or romantic foods,” Vignola said in a phone interview last week.
On the menu from Feb. 11-14 are a chile baked lobster thermidor, bluefin truffle tuna crudo, black truffle ricotta gnocchi and a DIY sundae for two, in addition to the usual offerings of steaks, seafood and plant-based entrees.
Some of the foods he listed fit well with the conventions of the occasion; others surprised me in their simplicity.
“Champagne is extremely romantic, caviar is romantic, lobsters are romantic, truffles are romantic,” Vignola said. “The potato, to me, is one of my greatest love affairs: It’s something that you just can’t live without. It’s amazing in all its forms, and it goes with everything.
“It’s almost as sexy as an egg,” he added. “Eggs are amazing, and beautiful in all sorts of ways, but again, that goes back to caviar, the egg.”
It’s the versatility and humility of the potato and the egg that make them so alluring, Vignola said. (Perhaps a metaphor for life, too?)
“I love both of those ingredients, because they have so many applications, whether they’re the shining star or an unsung hero that binds it all together,” he said. “They’re just really great, humble ingredients and they transpire through every cuisine in the world.”
But it is not just the foods themselves that elicit that special something, Vignola noted.
“It’s gotta hit a memory for me, right?” he said. “It’s got to be kind of romantic, it’s got to be wholesome. It’s got to be heartfelt.”
It’s up to the chef to add heart to that which on its own just appeals to the senses, he said.
“Gnocchi to me is something extremely warm and heartfelt,” Vignola said. “It’s something that harkens to my childhood, it reminds me of my grandmother, something with a lot of love behind it.
The dish can be as sensual in its preparation as it is wholesome in its conception, Vignola suggested.
“Especially when you’re working with your hands and you’re making gnocchi dough, there’s a sensuality to it,” he said. “You’ve got to be in love with your food, or else it’s never going to taste good, and (that love) will shine through in those dishes.”
Kaya Williams is a reporter for The Aspen Times and The Snowmass Sun who likes to flirt with her dinner menu. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.