The Valentine's Day Minefield at Central Market
The USDA Prime tenderloin was perfectly grilled and slathered in garlicky chimichurri, just the way my significant other likes it. The herbed shrimp on the side turned it into a "surf and turf" combo. Sides were a perfect round dome of boursin potato soufflé and slightly chewy grilled asparagus. We shared a bottle of Zolo Argentine Malbec, a round and fruity red wine that proved unremarkable but unobtrusive. We ate by candlelight while we watched a movie about the history of the tango on television, complete with a rousing soundtrack of the world's most passionate music.
The mini-cheesecake dessert that came with our dinner was disappointing, but I had a plan B ready. I had also scored her favorite dessert — a chocolate éclair. And I'd bought her a whole box of gourmet chocolate truffles, just to cover all the bases. She was very impressed and appreciative.
The Argentine theme was kind of an accident, and I don't even like surf and turf. Nevertheless, this was one of the most successful Valentine's Day dinners of my motley romantic career. Of course, it was more than a week before Valentine's Day, but I am arguing it still counted.
3815 Westheimer, 713-386-1700.
Hours: 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Call 713-386-1750 to order:
Beef tenderloin and shrimp: $70
Tenderloin and mushrooms: $70
Chicken saltimbocca: $60
Lobster tails: $80
Our candlelight feast was actually a sneak preview of Central Market's Valentine's Day Dinner & A Movie Package. I read about the Central Market package and went to the store to try it out in advance. Looking at the menu on display in the store, I attempted to buy all the items on the meal I could order. The store's prepared-foods counter didn't actually have all the elements of the Valentine's Day deal together yet, but I did a pretty good job of re-creating it. The herbed shrimp, asparagus and potato soufflé were available in the display case. I bought the beef tenderloin in the meat department (at $33 a pound!) and the cheesecakes from the bakery. The wine and the chocolates were my additions.
After years of screwing this holiday up, I have to say that this is a much better plan than some others I have come up with. I remember the year we went to New Orleans. I made a reservation at one of my favorite restaurants of yesteryear, K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen in the French Quarter. Turns out there is a reason you don't hear much about Paul Prudhomme anymore.
I hadn't been to K-Paul's since the late 1980s. And I forgot how rich the food was. My SO couldn't eat more than a couple of bites of her crawfish étouffée. She said it was like eating a stick of butter straight out of the wax paper. She was exaggerating, but not by much. I had "Blackened Stuffed Pork Chop Marchand de Vin," a pork chop stuffed with four kinds of cheese served in a sauce of prosciutto, red wine and mushrooms with a stuffed potato. I could barely eat a quarter of this dish, and I am not a dainty eater. We carried our unfinished entrées around the French Quarter with us for a while and then we chucked them.
And then there was the year I took my Valentine to the horse races at the Sam Houston Race Park. The track's restaurant used to have a special Valentine's deal with a rose for the ladies and a bottle of bubbly. (The track is closed for now due to Hurricane Ike.) It sounded like the sort of hip, ironic Valentine's Day outing my gal would really like. She didn't. She pointed out that it was cheap wine and the tacky flower was wrapped in pink aluminum foil. The turfside restaurant was right along the rail and lit by harsh fluorescent lighting that made our lips and our prime ribs look purple. It might have been okay if we'd hit a jackpot or two. But no matter how many win, place and show tickets we bought race after race, every single horse we bet on came up lame.
So this year I decided to quit with the brilliant ideas and do dinner at home. Eating in has more romantic possibilities anyway. But don't think you're just going to whip up some grub and call it a romantic feast — that's guaranteed to disappoint your special someone.
If you cook a lot at home, Valentine's Day dinner runs the risk of looking like every other night's dinner. That's why it's a good idea to buy a fancy dinner to go. By all means, call your favorite restaurants and see if one can accommodate you. But if you find all the top restaurants too slammed for takeout orders, consider Central Market's catering department. The food that the chefs there prepare looks like fancy restaurant fare. And you can accessorize it like I did, with some homemade chimichurri sauce or a couple of grilled jalapeños or some other little items that your SO is especially fond of. There's also a great wine department where you pick a wine to go with dinner, or splurge on a bottle of bubbly.
Going to Central Market to pick up your Valentine's Day dinner also tends to jog your memory about the other gifts you were probably supposed to get. You have to walk right by the flower shop to get to the cash register, and there are roses in every color imaginable sitting there along with orchids and scads of other exotic floral items. And, of course, Central Market has got chocolate hanging from every rafter right now. There's chocolate-dipped strawberries, artisan chocolate from top chocolatiers, truffles from gourmet producers and good old Lindt. There are literally dozens of choices of heart-shaped boxes full of chocolate bonbons at a staggering array of price points.
The Central Market Valentine's Day Dinner for Two package comes with candles and a movie. The movies available aren't all that exciting — there's your choice of A Good Year or Serendipity. For some sexier cinematic suggestions, check out the "Top 10 Food and Sex Scenes in the Movies" post on the Eating...Our Words blog on the Houston Press Web site.
The actual dinner starts with a salad of field greens, poached pears, pecans and goat cheese. Then there are four entrée choices. First there's the grilled beef tenderloin with herbed shrimp for two that we sampled. Then there's also a grilled tenderloin in a mushroom demi-glace for two. Canadian lobster tails with basil butter are $80. Chicken saltimbocca is $60. These all come with the boursin potato soufflé dome, chewy grilled asparagus and brioche rolls. You also get the boring fruit-garnished cheesecakes for dessert. (Consider getting something else, too.)
The food comes wrapped up in a lovely bag. You heat it up when you get home. I hope your Valentine's Day dinner goes as well as mine did.
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