Don’t Get Suckered on Valentine’s Day

Dear Helena,
I’m dating this girl I really like. I want to take her out for Valentine’s Day, but I’m worried about appearing too cheesy in my approach. I’m sure she’d appreciate a romantic gesture, but it has to be the right kind of romantic gesture. If I take her to a fancy restaurant, will she think I’m trying too hard? (We never eat at fancy restaurants.) If I cook for her at home, is that too intimate, considering we haven’t been dating long, and I don’t know how to cook very well? If I try to do some kind of hipster-bicycle-date thing, will she think I’m just being cheap? HELP!
—Allergic to Heart-Shaped Chocolates

Dear Allergic to Heart-Shaped Chocolates,
Even if you eat out at fancy restaurants all the time, it’s not the way to go on Valentine’s Day. Restaurants jack up the prices and overdo the food. “Chefs trip all over themselves trying to be deluxe, and you end up with too much rich stuff,” says Mollie Katzen, author of The New Moosewood Cookbook. After the prix fixe menu of butter-poached lobster and dark chocolate torte, you’ll feel more in the mood for Lost than passionate lovemaking.

In any case, it’s just too easy to book a table at a candlelit French bistro, and therefore not very romantic. If you want to impress your girlfriend, you need to do more than click a couple of times on OpenTable. For instance, Iso Rabins, founder of forageSF, suggests that, instead of buying flowers, you forage for an edible bouquet, which might include plants like “miner’s lettuce, wild fennel, wild radish greens, chickweed, dandelion greens, and nasturtiums.” Granted, if you’re not used to foraging, you might end up with a bunch of weeds that dogs have peed on—or worse.

Here are three better options that will impress your girlfriend without scaring her away. And they don’t require deep pockets or much culinary skill.

Mollusks
Oysters give any meal a luxurious air, so you needn’t put much effort into any other elements of the dinner. Just be sure to learn how to shuck them. “Gulf oysters are known as Louisiana Viagra,” says Crazy Legs Conti, a competitive eating champion who launched his career sucking them down. If oysters are outside your price range or not to your taste, consider making simple but classic steamed mussels with a hunk of good bread to sop up the buttery, boozy juices. Beer-lovers take note: CHOW’s instructions call for Pernod or wine, but you can use Belgian ale, too.

Miracle Fruit
A couple I know once invited my husband and me over for a “special mystery evening.” They told us to wear “comfy clothes for lounging” and to bring a bottle of dry Sauvignon Blanc. We were worried they were planning to seduce us, especially because when they ushered us into their kitchen there was no sign of cooking. This being San Francisco, I assumed the wrinkled berry they offered us was some kind of psychedelic. Instead, it turned out to be miracle fruit, which temporarily turns sour tastes sweet. We had a fabulous evening sampling platters of citrus fruits and sipping aromatic vinegars, and the Sauvignon Blanc tasted like Muscat. Consider ordering the berry online and staging a mystery banquet for your girlfriend.

Ethnic Hole in the Wall
If you still crave the stimulation of a night on the town, a low-key option is the ethnic hole in the wall with amazing food. In San Francisco, Kingdom of Dumpling comes to mind, a tiny Chinese restaurant near the beach with (per the name) excellent dumplings. Start the evening with a glass of champagne at home, or bring it with you if the restaurant allows it (call first to ask). Get advice from Chowhounds to find somewhere obscure but delicious, and make sure your girlfriend knows you did research: “This place is known for its tea leaf salad/Goan goat curry/arroz con leche.” That way, you’ll come across as dedicated, not stingy.

CHOW’s Table Manners column appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena.