Bringing Love to the Table 

Four of Tucson's finest restaurants prepare Valentine's Day seductions.

My grandmother was as mean as a snake. She was stubborn and miraculous and commanded all our devotion. Once, she recovered from pneumonia and a near brush with death by eating two hot dogs. When she was done, she delicately blotted ketchup from her lips, hailed a taxi and sailed back home from the hospital, puffing on a cigarette.

She loved Valentine's Day. She loathed Christmas. Christmas was for show, and by Valentine's Day she had dug her way out of debt and gave presents only to the ones she loved most. She would pluck a branch from a tree, adorn it with valentines and candy, and then wrap presents for her beloveds. Mind you, she was choosy. You got a present if you were deserving and she felt inclined. None of this holiday mandated business. For Grandma, Valentine's was the real McCoy.

Long celebrated as a lover's holiday, Valentine's Day is really about love. Whether your valentine is a spouse, a lover, a child or a raucous relative, set that day aside to give him or her a little extra token of your affection. One way to indulge the ones you love is to lavish them with some extra special attention in the form of an excellent meal. As the fruit doesn't fall far from the tree, I am also choosy about where I would take my best beloveds to dine.

Janos: Nationally recognized (and locally venerated) as Tucson's resident culinary guru, Janos Wilder has an impeccable touch sure to set the right mood. A night spent with your best beloved at Janos (or the adjacent J-Bar) will only create fond memories and kindle desire. Janos' Valentine's menu this year is a dazzling prix fixe ($75) meant to tantalize the one you love and set the palate ablaze (you never know what can follow such an encounter).

Beginning with Kumamoto oysters served with pickled ginger gelle and fresh wasabi (be still my heart), this will be a meal to remember: seared sea scallop and exotic mushroom smoked poblano flan, lobster with papaya in champagne sauce, grilled ostrich with cheddar grits, roast Colorado rack of lamb with chipotle recado and mole, and Chocolate Lover's Gateau. After such a meal your beloved can't help but feel well loved, restored and hopefully not too satiated to return some of that loving attention.

Should you choose to be less exclusive and more festive, the J-Bar will be serving a more informal menu. Each table will receive a family-style platter of bocaditos (oysters with pineapple salsa, exotic mushroom and salsa verde sopa, roast lollipop wings), antojitos (duck flautas, achiote shrimp skewers, roast scallops) and a platillo of molasses and rum skewered salmon, tamarind barbecued pork ribs and enchiloso seared beef with nopalito salad ($45). The real fun begins when you start to mix and match, forks crossing, wrists rubbing, spearing small bites to feed one another, a tender wipe of the lips, a deep gaze into the eyes É and, oh yes É dessert É the stars, the city skyline, the table for two.

Ovens Bistro: Should you want to make your Valentine's a family celebration, then your best choice is Ovens. One of Tucson's original and best bistros, Ovens consistently remains a crowd-pleaser simply because it does what bistros do best: offer up quality food in its simplest and most appealing form. From wood-fired pizzas and house-made pastas to its more complex and ambitious culinary endeavors, Ovens offers something special for everyone.

Most children love fire. And here they'll have the chance to watch their own pizza sizzle in the wood-fired oven while you can treat yourself to chef Steven Critcher's impressive repertoire, paired up with sommelier Tom Carter's carefully selected wines. Valentine's Day promises to be indulgent for dining companions of any age.

Start with the warm shrimp salad with mesquite-smoked bacon and caramelized shallots, paired with a glass of Callaway Viognier. Grilled Maine lobster in vanilla habanero cream and wild rice piñon pilaf served with a glass of Montaudon champagne will make any heart soar. The grilled Black Angus ribeye served with grilled wild mushrooms and ancho chili jus and paired with Ferrari Carano "Siena" will bring hearty satisfaction and a sense of well-being to any adult, regardless of the configuration of your Valentine companions.

For dessert, a special chocolate macadamia "rosebud" torte should satisfy everyone's sweet tooth, and don't forget to indulge yourself with a wee bit of Hardy's "Whisker's Blake" Tawny Port.

Kingfisher: Should you be in the mood for something on the decidedly seductive side, Kingfisher will be offering Oysters of Love (jumbo Oregon oysters from Umpqua). Chefs Murphy and Azersky, that dynamic duo, are cooking up plenty of Valentine specials to showcase. Be sure to check out the oak planked Arctic char with cherry compote, smoked and grilled prime rib of buffalo, or Florida pompano stuffed with oysters, crab and crawfish, baked in parchment.

Of course if you really want to wow the one you woo, you could just sit there and order dozens and dozens of oysters, freshly shucked and still briny cold. Kingfisher flies them in fresh and shucks them up right, from Umpqua to the Gulf of Mexico or the Belon. Order champagne or any of Kingfisher's marvelous signature martinis, and make it a real lovefest. Make sure to save room for coffee crème brülée with double chocolate biscotti or the Black Forest Brick, double chocolate cake, cherries, Kirsch and whipped cream.

Westward Look, The Gold Room: Of course you might just choose to pull out all the stops, propose marriage, conceive a child, or generally carry on and rent a room at the Westward Look. If so, plan on making a reservation in the Gold Room as chef Jason Jonilonis is planning a show-stopper five-course Valentine's dinner. Each prix fixe ($85) includes a fresh red rose for every couple.

Chef Jonilonis' meals are always a lovely saunter full of culinary delight. Start with baked oysters on the half shell, linger over lobster bisque, then savor warmed baby spinach served with seared foie gras. A choice of three entrées might cause a moment's pause, but you can always share. Choose from rosemary-crusted rack of lamb, filet mignon with lobster tail, or sautéed escolar with chanterelle mushroom lobster nage. For dessert, a guajillo chile chocolate bombe promises to ignite passion, possibly tableside.

Don't forget to inquire about special Valentine's Day packages, which can include massages, body wraps, horseback riding, or even live lovebirds. The Westward Look specializes in customized singular occasions; whether you want to return to a rose-petal-strewn bed or drop an engagement ring in a glass of champagne, all you have to do is make the call.

Live large and lavish the ones you love this Valentine's Day with a memorable moment or two. Trust me--even Grandma would approve.

For further information, reservations or directions, call Janos/J-bar at 615-6100, Ovens Bistro at 577-9001, Kingfisher at 323-7739, or Westward Look at 297-1151.


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