Meals worth remembering are soon forgotten in the shadow of romance

What can one say about a man who gives you a fly fishing rod and reel for Christmas, with a promise of a fly-fishing trip to Chile? "Maybe it's love," remarked a cynical pal, "or maybe he just really wants a fishing partner."

I prefer to think it's the former, judging by the non-fishing places he's taken me. Great hikes throughout Colorado, wanderings in San Francisco, wine tasting in Napa Valley and, when a business trip kept him in Texas, a rendezvous in Houston. And there have been phenomenal restaurants sprinkled throughout our time together. My editor salivates at the mention of the places Whitney and I have gone, and holds great hope for the reviews I haven't written.

My problem is that, though the restaurants have all been unforgettable, the details of the meals escape me.

Like Zenith, one of Denver's finest restaurants, praised in publications like Gourmet and Food and Wine and with good reason. The restaurant, in a converted bank building, is open and intimate; the menu lists jewel after jewel of choices. It should have been a slam-dunk of a review to write. I do have a vague memory of something involving Macadamia nut-encrusted sea bass, resting atop crisp julienned vegetables of some sort (were they zucchini? carrots?), and a rich red Thai curry coating the plate. Prior to that we had shared a smoked corn chowder, one of the signature dishes of the house, but rather than focusing on the smoothness of the swirl of crme frache in the soup, I was lost in my sweetheart's blue eyes. It's tough to think straight sometimes.

In San Francisco last fall we dined at Farallon, a visually overwhelming hot spot on Post Street. Described by one critic as looking like Jules Verne on acid, the multilevel dining area has all the trappings of an undersea grotto. Gigantic glass chandeliers look like the underbellies of jellyfish. Multicolored mosaics of mermaids cover the curving walls. Heat lamps at the open cook area are whimsical dangling fish. Our meal, I know, was comparably mind-blowing. At least, I think so.

It began with a half bottle of pink champagne -- not the bubbly sweet swill that sends elderly aunts twittering on the occasional New Year's Eve, but something dry and French and magical. Why didn't I write down the label? Why didn't I look at the label?

I think we started with a shared cuttlefish salad, smooth and vinegary; I think persimmons may have been involved. Waiters and busers, silent as ghosts, took away plates, brought more food, opened more wine. Our salads were stunning: butter lettuce cradling chunks of lobster drizzled with a lemon aioli and sprinkled with caviar, and camembert, walnuts and mushrooms wrapped in spinach. And yet, as I recall, they were outdone by the entrees: a meltingly tender filet topped with gorgonzola cheese, pine nuts and a layer of potato galette, all lovingly dribbled with a peppercorn sauce. Whitney's Muscovy duck with braised endive, pecans and mushrooms was exquisite. Dessert, I think, had berries redolent in a meringue of some sort. But I was smitten. How could I be expected to investigate ingredients?

I did no better at Caf Annie's in Houston. We were there in late October so this elegant room with its high-ceilings and mirrored banquettes was bedecked with Halloween ghouls -- stylishly dressed, if a tad overly made-up (cadaverously).

We shared an appetizer of rabbit enchilada over a red mole sauce. Our server, I remember, had the kitchen split this between two plates, no easy feat to get the presentation as beautiful as it was on each plate with half an enchilada. As lovely a gesture as that was, it was almost wasted on us, as we were talking, scheming, planning things more interesting than the food (may the foodies of the world forgive me...).

Watercress salads with walnuts, pecans and Roquefort followed, and then some game entrees: Nilgai antelope with wild rice and pheasant that had something done to it featuring ancho chilies. Side dishes were served in small covered dishes; sauces were spooned with a well-practiced flourish onto one's plate tableside. It was all quite impressive and yummy, as was the apple tart dessert with its paper-thin slices of tart apples and dollop of whipped cream. I think. My focus, as you can imagine, was elsewhere.

And so, when you dine with your beloved this Valentine's night, remember one thing: It almost doesn't matter where you are. The wine will sparkle, but so will your sweetie's smile. May the meal be only one of many you two will share, and may the memories you keep be of much more than the food you eat.


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