Every year, I wonder how a priest who was clobbered to death ended up being the poster guy for romance. And every year, I never quite get around to finding out. I should probably make a better effort, given that my (cough) birthday falls on Valentine’s Day, but hey it also coincides with International Mullet Day (the hairdo, not the fish) and I’ve never quite bothered sleuthing out that event’s origins either.
While there’s nothing to bring out a major case of the collective grumps like Valentine’s Day, there are actually a few upsides to having your birthday on the day. One, no one (not even people who have dropped out of your life like an FM station in no-transmission zone) forgets your birthday. Two, you can be the biggest Romance Scrooge (or be totally ignored by Cupid) and STILL score good presents. Three, no one forgets your birthday. It’s a sweet deal.
That said, one buzz-killing aspect of being born on V-Day is this –
it sure is a bum night to go out for dinner (Matthew Evans in Never Order Chicken On A Monday says not to even bother).
I remember one birthday walking up and down every inch of King St Newtown, innocently thinking it’d be easy to get a table on such a restaurant-crowded strip. Ha! Spontaneity can sure wear out a good pair of shoes.
Since then, I’ve always lobbed in a booking long before the day.
The other mood-killer with dining out on Feb 14th is having to eat out in a moshpit of smoochy lovers. It IS a bit of an appetite suppressant. So I’ve always tried to go somewhere that’s less of a high-powered magnet for couples. Once we had nice Japanese before going to test out the star-aimed telescopes at the Sydney Observatory. Another time we had a Birthday/Who Cares About Valentine’s Day dinner at the eternally bustling Emma’s On Liberty, which is always too noisy to scare off any Cupid action. (Ironically, the anti-romance dinner resulted in some people pairing up and becoming the World’s Most Unbelievably Well-Suited Couple Ever, now engaged!)
This year, we ended up at A Tavola in Darlinghurst. I wanted to go somewhere a little special with a bunch of friends, except that the Valentine’s Day curse hit and (like many other places), the restaurant dropped its usually laidback approach for a set-in-stone menu, at $75 a head. I couldn’t really justify asking any friend to pay that much just to have dinner with me (at least with those shonky $1000-a-head dinners where lobbyists get to sweet-talk politicians into bending legislation, no one can whimper about being shortchanged).
Despite the sizing down of choice, the dinner was pretty good. As soon as we got our menus, I was already in dessert negotiation mode with Will. After a terse exchange and a handshake, we agreed that he’d have Limoncello Pannacotta with Fresh Strawberries, Lime Syrup and Poppy Seeds and I’d go for the Mint Sorbet, Passionfruit Jelly and Coconut Foam, broadening our chances of spoon-sharing goodness.
Having already blogged about A Tavola, I won’t go into over-detail. Will had ingredient amnesia and ordered the Figs, Prosciutto, Gorgonzola Dolce Latte as an entree, only to remember mid-fig-bite, that he actually didn’t like figs.
I was happier with my Buffalo Mozzarella Caponata. The mozzarella was a bit inoffensively bland (like a polite co-worker who never quite gives anything away about themselves) but the tart, sweet caponata grabbed more than its share of attention, thanks to the punchy crunch of the pine nuts. (Another plus point, A Tavola’s menu was much more vego-friendly than it was on our last visit.)
We raced through the mains – Grilled Veal with Panzanella for Will and Triangoli of Green Peas, Sage and Fontina for me – to get to the much-anticipated desserts. And boy was our impatience spot on. Will claimed his panna cotta was the best he’d ever had – and he has rated and ranked many an Italian egg custard in his time. The dish was firm yet spoon-yieldingly soft, with a strong seductive lemon bite to it. (Important when panna cottas can be such flavour-wallflowers and have a real timid taste.)
Mine was the dreamiest dessert I had in a long time. It came in a martini glass, with the jelly and sorbet layers alternating, as if in a race to get to your tastebuds first. And it came topped with coconut foam. Now I’ve always been suspect about this airy-fairy trend of adding no-nothing ‘foam’ to yuppify a meal. But the aerated smoky coconut taste really was a wonderful touch, especially with the extra lime zest on top, and the thick layers of gelatinous sweetness underneath. I don’t think a dessert has left me so light-headed since the Deconstructed Tiramisu with Espresso Granita at Otto. That palate-sweetener also was presented in a martini glass, which probably confirms that any dessert served in that suave way is already on its way to memory-burning greatness (especially with the shaken, not stirred James Bond?)
In fact, the Otto comparison kinda works in another way, because the meal reminded me of Otto – except it wasn’t as pricey, and there were no diners tussling over whether they could be ‘seen’ or not. At A Tavola though, we did have the curious joy of being seated next to the World’s Most Depressing Couple, who spent most of their meal in suspicious silence, like they’d been spent of any reason to talk to each other. I thought that they were probably at the tail-end of a long relationship and they were holding it together just to get past Valentine’s Day. In an over-imaginative fit, I became convinced that their table was haunted and any couple who had dinner there would succumb to Relationship Doom! Of course, I was swiftly proven wrong because the next pair were chatty and bubbly and holding hands and not being shunned by Cupid at all.
And anyway, food this good was bound to patch up even the shakiest relationship … For a little while, at least.
A Tavola, 348 Victoria Street Darlinghurst NSW (02) 9331 7871, www.atavola.com.au