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Incite passion with lustful Valentine's Day dishes

The typical criteria for "Most Romantic Dining Spot"- cozy atmosphere, fireplace, candles on the tables, an aura of history and tradition - all but dictate the yearly anointing of Grey Moss Inn as Cupid's standard bearer. With all due respect to the venerable restaurant, it's time to consider some new approaches to the inducement of l'amour. We'll accordingly focus this discourse on considerations not of where one is eating but what.

This is all brought about by a recent dinner at Sushihana, at which a waiter slyly recommended an off-the-menu item as having aphrodisiac qualities. Consisting of sea urchin roe and slivered squid served in a hollowed-out orange, the combination of soft and crunchy textures certainly aroused the palate - and the sweet hint of orange added spice to the experience.

"Eat and await love's call" is the tag line to one traditional Chinese recipe for shark's fin soup, a dish perhaps valued as much for its cost and lengthy preparation time as any chemical or textural properties. Try it for yourself at Wah Kee on Blanco Road. Be sure to call ahead for availability and to select the lobster version - it's sexier than chicken.

Bird's nest soup leads to thoughts of love in the Chinese canon - though why the real thing, made from nests of swallows, which are cemented together with their saliva and roe of small fish, should excite is hard to comprehend. Accept the ersatz, made from fine noodles and missing the occasional twigs and feathers.

Chopsticks make for very intimate sharing of food, and it's especially provocative to imagine passing noodles - their lubricious quality a potential turn-on in its own right - from your bowl to his or her lips. For an added touch of exoticism, the Bi Bim Hue Na Myon, served icy cold with raw sting ray, crunchy Asian pear, and a hot chile paste at Go Hyang Jib Korean BBQ House, adds an aspect of culinary thrill-seeking to its already alluring cool-hot, crisp-soft qualities.

Raw oysters, of course, reign supreme for their erotic appeal. Casanova and his amour du jour are said to have eaten dozens of the bivalves in a bathtub built-for-two every morning - but there are those who believe that stamina is induced by high amounts of iodine and phosphorous in the oysters. Famed food writer M.F.K. Fisher also suggested that "an oyster's odor `briny and bracing`, its consistency `slippery and soft`, and probably its strangeness" were equally to blame.

Andrew Weissman has occasionally put wasabi oysters on his tasting menu at Le Rêve - one element to assuage the palate, the other to inflame it. Pesca, the seafood restaurant in the new Watermark Hotel & Spa, features a raw seafood bar. And though its setting can't really be called conducive to romance, Water Street's raw bar also features freshly shucked Gulf oysters on the half-shell.

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If it's caviar you're after, then Champagne's the ticket: The combination of tiny eggs bursting on the palate and bubbles tantalizing it even further is almost irresistible. Caviar's luxurious aspect may account for a lot of its alleged appeal and effect, but if Madame Pompadour believed in it, then what can we mere mortals say? Caviar isn't a regular feature on local menus, but Le Rêve features its tuna tartare topped with osetra. Biga often offers osetra or sevruga by the ounce, and the Fig Tree regularly pairs beluga with iced Stolichnaya Cristall, another match made in hanky-pank heaven. Vodka, beluga, and cactus paddles have been put together by Scott Cohen at Las Canarias for a mating of the traditional with the Texan.

Rosé champagnes and sparklers also make for good bedfellows with truffles. The French, of course, have long peddled the black variety as an erotic agent, and larger-than-life personalities such as Napoleon and the Marquis de Sade were said to have relied on them. (This may or may not be a recommendation.) Locally, shaved black truffle adorns a carpaccio of Kobe beef at the Fig Tree, and a truffle vinaigrette often appears at Le Rêve, where Chef Weissman also uses truffle oil in an outright erotic appetizer of poached egg in pecorino-romagna cream sauce.

Champagne can, of course, stand on its own as an aide to amorous activity. A natural place to look for the best in bubbly is Zinc Wine & Champagne Bar; its wine list features several exceptional sparklers, and if you can cop a seat on the loungier side of the operation - the setting should serve as well. Other lists with lots of sparklers include those at the Little Rhein and the Fig Tree (in the vintage realm, the Salon Blanc de Blanc "Le Mesnil" certainly ought to impress). Ruth's Chris also showcases vintage-dated Schramsberg from California, and Las Canarias features a range of offerings that spans the globe.

It's unlikely that the first legendary chocolate consumer, Moctezuma, downed his dozens of cups of hot chocolate and chile daily to clear his head - though that is one of chocolate's alleged properties. Other aspects of chocolate (its trace levels of the opiate-like anandamide, and its effect on endorphins and serotonin) could conceivably contribute in the pursuit of passion. Hot chocolate is still a good way to mainline the stuff - chile accent optional, but perhaps effective.

Pastry lovers have the choice of everything from Liberty Bar's humble (but appropriately sinful) Virginia Green's chocolate cake to lethal, death-by-chocolate types at Cappy's. But for a full-course press on passion, there is no local option more alluring than the Valentine's Day dinner being served at Francesca's in the Westin La Cantera. (Apologies in advance if it's sold out.) Consulting chef Mark Miller has put together a menu with major Mexican influences - and copious amounts of chocolate, billed as "Chocolate and Rosé Wines - the Food of Love and Wine of Romance." If Cupid doesn't strike after this immersion in the food of love, there's no hope. •



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