They say the way to a man's heart is through his stomach. The same maxim holds true for women. How else to explain the Valentine's Day rush for restaurant reservations? Seven Days' online dining guide, 7 Nights, offers insights into dining options around the area. We culled the roster for some of the area's most romantic dining destinations, and asked the chefs to recommend dishes for a special date. Everyone agreed that sharing just about anything edible is guaranteed to increase intimacy. Eating it raw is another erotic option. And certain luxe ingredients turned up on lots of lists: oysters, lobster, chocolate, champagne. Another popular suggestion: passion fruit, with its punning possibilities. Get it?
126 College Street, Burlington, 863-5200
$$$ dinner, closed Sunday
7 Nights says: "This upscale restaurant is elegant Italian. Try the squash-blossom fritters."
A comment card confirms: "The dining room is quiet enough for conversation, yet intimate enough to not be overheard."
"Lobster's always sexy," suggests Chef Kevin Cleary. For Valentine's Day he'll be serving the succulent meat removed from the shell and sautéed, with a saffron-risotto cake, asparagus and a vermouth beurre blanc. Other romantic recommendations: sharing a soufflé, or ordering the squash blossom fritters when they're available. Cleary notes that they're drizzled with truffle oil, which "has that little musky smell to it . . ."
5573 Shelburne Road, Shelburne, 985-3939
$$$$ dinner, closed Sunday & Monday
7 Nights says: "This special-occasion restaurant, located across from the Shelburne Museum, serves gourmet French fare."
A comment card confirms: "This is the perfect spot for either a romantic night out or a celebratory gathering."
Raw fish and spears of asparagus are two of the sexiest foods out there. At Café Shelburne they're paired: The salmon carpaccio comes with fresh steamed asparagus. Lobster with mashed sweet potatoes and basil sauce is appealing to the eye, and enticingly smooth on the tongue. For a sweet ending, Sous Chef Scott Fay recommends sharing crème brûlée or raspberry mousse. Chef Patrick Grangien adds that ambiance is essential to romance. "Café Shelburne is romantic all year round," he says. "Lots of people come here to celebrate an anniversary or an engagement."
Starry Night Café
5371 Route 7, Ferrisburgh, 877-6316
$$$$ dinner, closed Monday & Tuesday
7 Nights says: "The hand-crafted décor is as distinctive as the dining at this intimate café overlooking a pond."
A comment card confirms: "The ambiance is so cute, cozy and warm, with the perfect lighting."
Slippery on the tongue and tasting of the sea, oysters are about as sexy as food gets. They're a natural choice for a Valentine's menu, and Chef Joshua Krechel will be featuring them on the 14th. For a more surprising choice, he suggests splitting the seafood mole, which combines chocolate, pumpkin seeds and Anaheim chiles. Talk about hot.
115 Church Street, Burlington, 863-3759
$$$ brunch, lunch, dinner
7 Nights says: "The owners boast that they've got 'the panache of Paris and the value of Vermont.' Good location, too. Live music Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights and a weekend brunch."
A comment card confirms: "It's a special place for special moments to happen."
What makes a meal romantic isn't so much what you eat as whom you eat it with, Manager Bob Conlon believes. "Just share everything," he suggests. More specifically, Chef Donnell Collins recommends that couples dive into shrimp stuffed with artichokes, veal short ribs braised in rosemary and chocolate, and cheesecake with balsamic-strawberry sauce for a "fun, sassy" end to the meal and . . . a prelude to what comes next.
Toscano Café Bistro
27 Bridge Street, Richmond, 434-3148
$$$ brunch, lunch, dinner. Closed Monday.
7 Nights says: "In the heart of Richmond, find romantic dining in a casual atmosphere. Try the grilled beef tenderloin or the Parmesan-crusted salmon filet with saffron risotto and grilled asparagus. Chef-owned and operated since 2003."
A comment card confirms: "Cozy atmosphere and an open kitchen make for a great ambiance."
Lace curtains on the windows, velvet drapes between the rooms, and roses and candles on the tables set the stage for romance at Toscano, suggests Chef Jonny Faith, who co-owns the establishment with his wife Lucie. The Richmond restaurant promises "quintessential" Valentine's ingredients, according to Jonny. Cayenne-and-lemon aioli on the crispy fried oysters will "get you sparked up for the evening," he says. Champagne-basil cream sauce envelops a sauté of shrimp, scallops and lobster tail. Appropriately enough, Faith plans to bake the decadent chocolate cake for two in the shape of a heart.
The Blue Moon Café
35 School Street, Stowe, 253-7006
7 Nights says: "Fine dining with a bistro feel. The menu changes weekly and showcases local, seasonal ingredients."
Chef Jimmy Kalp's menu changes weekly, so he hasn't thought yet about V Day. But he suggests that oysters, champagne and caviar "get the blood flowing a little bit." For an entrée, he recommends something "warming to the heart," such as braised Glover rabbit with thyme, cob-smoked bacon and celeriac with its "clean, crisp flavor." "It's rich but not overly heavy," he notes, so you could still finish up the meal with a sexy dessert such as a molten chocolate pot with Valentine-red raspberry sauce, "and then go home and do whatever you're going to do."
Hen of the Wood
92 Stowe Street, Waterbury, 244-7300
$$$$ dinner, closed Sunday
7 Nights says: "White tablecloths and an ever-changing menu give this new restaurant a 'fine-dining' feel, but its rustic old-mill setting is down-to-earth. Chef-owner Eric Warnstedt buys local meats, greens and cheeses."
A comment card confirms: "A perfect place to take the person you enjoy spending time with . . ."
"We're getting away from the standard champagne and oysters," says Chef-owner Eric Warnstedt. Instead, his Valentine's Day menu begins with steamed Florida crabs topped with decadent Green Goddess dressing, followed by a bone-in rib roast for two with truffle butter. For dessert? Milk-chocolate passion fruit tartlets with candied rose petals.
Black Sheep Bistro
253 Main Street, Vergennes, 877-9991
7 Nights says: "A casual yet romantic bistro decorated with prints from France. Seven Days readers voted it 'the best place to have dinner outside Chittenden County if you're paying.'"
A comment card confirms: "Fabulous food that is innovative and interesting without being over the top or silly, at an insanely low price. Make a reservation . . . it's a popular place. The atmosphere is very romantic."
Chef Michel Mahe, who is also proprietor of Shelburne's Bearded Frog, sends mashed potatoes and fries to the table with every meal. "It's like a nice little dinner for two at home - with more people," he suggests. But if you were at home, you might not be eating sexy lobster ravioli with tarragon beurre blanc, or a rack of lamb with rosemary demiglace. "A lot of people propose at the Black Sheep," Mahe says. "So far nobody has ever said 'no.'" Must be the food.
4988 U.S. Route 4, Killington, 422-3886
$$$$ dinner, closed Monday & Tuesday
7 Nights says: "Owner Ted Fondulas is an award-winning chef. You can dine in the rustic wine cellar, under chandeliers in the elegant main room, or in a cozy back room with a fireplace. Multi-course and wine-tasting menus available."
Esquire magazine once called Hemingway's one of the most romantic restaurants in America. Past years' Valentine's menus have featured such suggestive dishes as "a quail roasted in the moment of fertility with a truffle lavender sauce" and "carpaccio of salmon in a tangle of seaweed." This year, look for a plate of all things chocolate "to be spoon-fed to your soul mate," including hot chocolate scented with cardamom and ginger foam, and a little chocolate gift box containing a hazelnut mousse with brandied cherries. Between courses, couples will be offered palate-cleansing sips of a bitter concoction called "Unrequited Love," Linda says, "to put you back into reality."
29 Stone Road, Brookfield, 276-3939
$$$$ dinner, closed Monday & Tuesday
7 Nights says: "Restaurateur Richard Fink and Chef Lee Duberman have been serving 'sophisticated, healthy food' at this destination restaurant for more than 30 years. The pub area is slightly more casual than the dining room."
A comment card confirms: "Fabulous food prepared to perfection with the most near-to-perfect mix of spice, space and speech. A small New England village on a pond with a floating bridge . . . hosts a restaurant with a culinary acumen second to none."
Lots of people celebrate their anniversaries at Ariel's, says Chef Lee Duberman. "We try to make things as romantic as possible." For a V-day special, Duberman plans to pair vibrant pomegranate, "the food of love," with seared duck breast. A sensual item that's always on the menu - and Ariel's most popular appetizer - is the crab cake in a Middle Eastern pastry crust with grapefruit vinaigrette. "It's crisp on the outside and creamy on the inside," says the chef. Mmm.
Michael's on the Hill
4182 Waterbury-Stowe Road, Waterbury Center, 244-7476
$$$$ dinner, closed Tuesday
7 Nights says: "This elegant, fine-dining restaurant has alpine roots. Swiss-trained chef-owner Michael Kloeti runs the kitchen."
A comment card confirms: "If you want to go all out for a romantic dinner, Michael's is the way to go."
Chef Kloeti thinks so, too. "Everything is romantic here," he boasts. The proof? Even the comfort food, like mac and cheese, is full of sensual ingredients. His version features papardalle pasta with lobster, artichokes, spinach, Gruyere and black truffle. On the day itself, try special menu items such as oyster gratin with Pernod, garlic and herb butter, or feed your lover a piece of chocolate gateau with passion-fruit sauce.
52 State Street, Montpelier, 262-3500
$$$ lunch, dinner
7 Nights says: "Formerly Conoscenti, this new eatery is named after Chef Aaron Millon's sister. He describes the cuisine as 'New American with Italian roots.'"
Chef Millon tries to capture the "romantic Vermont" vibe with preparations that are "rustic and elegant at the same time." Roasted duck breast with sweet potato gnocchi in a cherry port sauce, anyone? Root veggies with butter and maple syrup come on the side. This is a "quintessential Restaurant Phoebe dish," Millon says. Another luxurious option: beef tartare with a butter-coddled quail egg. "Lots of couples sit at the bar and share the tartare," Millon says. Sexy and unusual - what more could anyone want?