|This bread pudding is suffused with chocolate sauce and buttressed by whipped cream. Photos by Ralph Stewart
Love, thy name is Crème Brulée
Although I have daydreamed about writing a best-selling trashy novel that earns me millions and a seat next to Oprah Winfrey - the whole truth and nothing but the truth - writing about romance is not what I do.
Over the many years I have worked for The Times I have reported on Steamship Authority issues, county government, health care and Gay Head politics. I write about fishing and occasionally hunting. It is not romantic stuff.
When Pat Waring, Times Calendar editor, asked me to take my wife out for a romantic dinner and write about Valentine's Day I was hesitant. Although the prospect of fine dining on The Times expense account made me swoon, I needed to clear the assignment with my wife, Norma.
|Créme brulée and strawberries by candlelight. What could be more romantic?
I had good reason to be cautious. In the past, I wrote about Norma in one of my fishing columns. She threatened me with the sort of physical injury that puts one's face on the front page of the supermarket tabloid National Enquirer if I ever wrote about her again.
I called home and asked Norma if she would like to have dinner at Le Grenier, the well-known French Restaurant on Main Street in Vineyard Haven. I think that dining out in a fine restaurant where I cannot pronounce most of the items on the menu adds to the romantic atmosphere.
"So we're just supposed to go there and eat and you're going to write about it?" Norma asked cautiously.
Then she reminded me, "You know our first-ever date was on Valentine's Day." There was a brief pause. "First-ever," she added by way of emphasis.
Up to this point I had taken a strictly professional and gastronomical view of my assignment. But she was right. It dawned on me that by taking on this assignment I would accumulate romantic wife points and get paid. I was overcome with feelings of love for my job.
I made early reservations at Le Grenier. Sixteen years ago when we first went out there was no dog and no teenage daughter to consider.
Our first official date was in the midst of a bleak Vineyard winter made bearable only by a once-a-week outing with Norma and her friends at the Capawock Theatre dollar night. Getting up the courage to commit, I asked Norma out on Valentine's Day.
We went to the Wharf Pub in Edgartown. I remember I talked about what all guys on the rebound talk about when they finally get up the nerve to go out again talk about: an old girlfriend. Luckily she went out with me the next time I asked.
The entrance to Le Grenier Restaurant, like much about the physical space, is undistinguished. A staircase on the side of a building that houses a bagel café and real estate office leads up to an open dining room. It is the well-prepared food and the personal attention chef Jean Dupon lavishes on his diners, evident throughout the evening, that attracts regulars and newcomers to the restaurant that was first established in 1979.
Tisbury is a dry town, meaning town voters have decided that public order benefits if restaurants are not allowed to sell beer and wine to their customers who are free to purchase beer and wine elsewhere and bring it to the restaurant. As far as I can tell, the effects of this prohibition are some inconvenience to uninformed diners from the mainland who come unencumbered by a brown paper bag expecting to order wine with their meals, and higher menu prices.
In the past, we might have drunk wine but, comfortable in our relationship, we brought along four bottles of beer. Our waitress set up a wine bucket to keep our vintage Rolling Rock chilled.
We began dinner with an appetizer, a delicious plate of Moules au Pernod, mussels steamed in Pernod and tomatoes. The mussels were plump and tasty and the broth perfect for soaking up with the bread provided at the table.
Despite a busy dining room Gretchen, the only waitresses on that evening, managed to check on us without seeming overbearing or rushed while we took our time mulling over the main course selections.
Over the years there are many things I have come to admire about my wife. She is a good mother, honest, and has a sense of humor. The fact that we are approaching another Valentine's Day milestone still talking and enjoying each other's company has much to do with her ability to read me like a book.
When it comes to ordering at restaurants Norma understands that any suggestions I may make about entrees she might order are completely self-serving because she knows that I will consume my dinner and then turn my attention to hers.
Norma ordered the Shrimp Pernod sautéed with shallots and anise seed, flambé with Pernod and finished with cream. I ordered Rack of Lamb served with a rosemary currant sauce, a dish I would not normally cook at home.
The lamb chops, small, delicate and quite delicious, were arranged around the plate with the sauce in the middle. I was careful to chew carefully. Nothing takes away from a romantic dinner in a French restaurant if you have to suddenly start gesturing that you are choking and wait in a dignified manner for someone to perform the Heimlich maneuver.
Across the room the waitress carried Steak au Poivre cooked with cognac to a nearby table and ignited it. The impressive ball of fire attracted the attention of all the other diners. It occurred to me that it is not a dish to order when dining with someone else's spouse on a small Island.
The fine food and French music was having an effect. Norma took my hand in hers. "So honey," she asked, "Is this story supposed to be about the food or the romance?
I changed the subject and asked her what she would like for dessert. I knew I must have the Crème Brulée but I could not decide between crème caramel or something I could not pronounce but that sounded really good: Profiterole au Chocolat ou au Caramel, a scoop of vanilla ice cream in a puff pastry lathered with either chocolate or caramel sauce.
"Just order one and I'll have a bite," Norma suggested.
Oh no, I told her, I was on assignment.
"You really just brought me along so you could order two dinners and two deserts," she said.
As with many Islanders, our main activity when we leave the Vineyard is round-the-clock dining out. I discovered Crème Brulée late in life when we took a family trip to Montreal over spring school vacation.
It is a sort of sweet custard hit with a flame to create a caramelized coating. I want to be laid to rest in a vat of the stuff.
We made short work of the profiterole and Crème Brulée, both of which were delicious. I figured I had consumed all the calories needed to fuel an Olympic swim team and enough cholesterol to block the Ted Williams tunnel.
My romantic thoughts were interrupted by snippets of overheard conversation from a couple seated at a nearby table. I could not hear much but the inflection of the woman's voice as she asked her companion, "What is important to you?" suggested that she was not really interested in an answer from the guy sitting across from her.
I tried to ignore the conversation but my ears, attuned to all frequencies by my attendance at countless meetings, kept picking up the sharper exchanges. "What do you mean you don't know?" the woman demanded to know of her companion. He murmured something in reply. "Are you kidding," she asked?
I turned my attention to Norma. We talked about our daughter and plans for the weekend. We joked and reminisced.
I do not pretend to understand romance or why some relationships survive and others do not. But it seems to me that, like a fine French meal, romance takes just the right combination of ingredients. Luckily for me, the past 16 years have been a feast.
Happy Valentine's Day.