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Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2008

The Taste of Love:

Valentine’s Day 2008—Drinking and Dining

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"I love you.” The whispered words float across the linen tablecloth, over the delicate silverware, the fine china, between the glasses of wine that glow with the light of a nearby candle. It’s Valentine’s Day and you sit across from the person you love most in the world. There’s a part of you that bristles at the holiday’s commercialization, the obligation it imparts. But then your softer side says, “So what? It’s our culture’s one day to celebrate romantic love. Is that so hard to get behind? We should really devote more of our calendar to such worthy pursuits.”

So here you are, enjoying a fabulous meal with your lover and you stop to consider the sensuousness of the flavors and textures. Soothing cucumber tempers a lemon’s tartness in the relish that anoints an oyster. You slice a piece of tender steak and share.

Intoxicated with a mixture of red wine and the affection you feel, the two of you are in your own world in the middle of a crowded dining room. Gazes grow longer, a secret revealed, a promise made. You sip rich espresso mixed with milk. The sweetness of the hazelnut tuile and cinnamon creme anglaise remains until it’s replaced with a kiss at the end of the night.

Whatever you decide to do to celebrate this year’s Valentine’s Day, it’s about celebrating your love, the personal connection only the two of you share. The perfect date isn’t determined by how much you spend, but how the dining experience suits your tastes as a couple. You will be most happy celebrating this day of love with the person you love doing what you love.

For a classic evening of romance, here is a list of some of Milwaukee’s best contenders:

Nessun Dorma
2778 N. Weil Street (414) 264-8466
Tucked in low-key Riverwest, Nessun Dorma’s unassuming exterior does nothing to prepare you for the warm charm found within. With 12 tables and its status as the neighborhood’s “best-kept secret” quickly waning, a crowd is likely. Consider the wait an opportunity to relax in the front bar and sample from more than 80 types of beer, 25 different bourbons and an extensive selection of wine. This isn’t to say Nessun Dorma is more bar than restaurant, however, for you will eat well here. The house-made Italian-nouveau cuisine—think bruschetta, antipasti, panini—is delicious and uniquely affordable.

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Crazy Water
839 S. Second Street (414) 645-2606
If conversation starts to lull while dining at this Walker’s Point gem, just look to the kitchen for entertainment—it’s situated in plain sight on the other side of the long wooden bar. A classic sensibility dictates the decor— antique tin ceiling, vintage hardwood floors, low lighting—while culinary abandon reigns in the tiny kitchen. Co-owner/chef Peggy Magister continues to wow with complex and unexpected flavors, all the while offering time-honored signature selections, like shrimp served with spicy chorizo sausage and jalapeno cornbread cakes. The list of hand-shaken martinis can be fun to explore; witness the Caipirinha, Brazil’s national cocktail, made with cachaca, sugar cane syrup and muttled limes.

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Sanford
1547 N. Jackson St. (414) 276-9608
If we treated our loved ones with the warmth and courtesy with which Sanford treats its guests, every day would be Valentine’s Day. The refurbished East Side family grocery—with its white tablecloths and modern decor—is enchanting, and chef/owner Sandy D’Amato is well practiced in the art of seduction. His smoked salmon on rye blini with marinated beets and paprika caraway cream lowers your defenses. Then, drizzled with a lovely orange parsley vinaigrette, the fresh field greens with prosciutto di Parma, aged Asiago and brittle pear wafers take it one step further.

The next thing you know, you’re in over your head with the sake-glazed wild striped bass and led hopelessly astray by his bittersweet “Intentional Chocolate” tart. Add wine to the equation and you never had a chance of escaping Sanford without being completely enamored. Consider the money that you will most definitely spend at Sanford a worthy investment in your relationship, with the possibility of heavy dividends.

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Coquette Cafe
316 N. Milwaukee St. (414) 291-2655
When you find Sandy and Angie D’Amato at the helm of a restaurant, just know the seduction is henceforth. And like her big brother Sanford, Coquette Cafe will win you over with just one date. Her gracious staff puts visitors at ease in a window-lined dining room rich with dark wood and warm tones. Inspired by the bistros and brasseries of Europe, the menu is a comprehensive collection of authentic French specialties along with contemporary American dishes. The Soupe a l’Oignon—a beautiful blend of caramelized onions in an assertive beef and wine broth covered with freshly grated Gruyere cheese—is a must. As for the kiss you’re anticipating later, onion soup isn’t a problem if it’s shared.

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Lake Park Bistro
3133 E. Newberry Blvd. (414) 962-6300
Bartolotta’s Lake Park Bistro is consistently appointed the city’s “Most Romantic” restaurant, and for good reason. Perched on a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan and nestled within the beautifully manicured grounds of Lake Park, the bistro’s natural setting and warm, elegant interior set the scene for romance. Chef Adam Siegel, a James Beard-award nominee, presides over a classic menu of exquisite French cuisine. Take the young maestro’s pan-seared foie gras with sauteed apples and apricot preserves—fowl as minor masterpiece.

The legendary wine list celebrates the senses and will certainly complement your special occasion. If a table with a spectacular view of the lake is part of your amorous plan, early reservations are recommended.

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At Random
2501 S. Delaware Ave. (414) 481-8030
Nothin’ says lovin’ like two straws and a gigantic flaming fish bowl of alcohol. The Tiki Love Bowl from At Random is just one of the many strong specialty drinks served up at this South Side cocktail lounge. Beer and wine are notably absent from the menu, replaced with a huge selection of ice cream drinks, Irish coffees, Manhattans, mai tais and martinis.

Nothing seems to have changed since At Random’s inception. Not the red Christmas lights or faux candle sconces (seemingly the only source of light). Not the intimate vinyl booths or the electric fireplace. And certainly not the soundtrack. At least once a night, the sound system can be counted on to play Dean Martin’s “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head.”

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Cafe Luna & Lounge
106 W. Seeboth St. (414) 223-1558
You’ve just had a wonderful dinner. Now what? An orange glow from across the Milwaukee River answers: Cafe Luna & Lounge. A spectacular view of Downtown and the Third Ward is not the only thing that draws a diverse crowd to this offbeat after-dinner/dessert lounge located on the RiverWalk of the First Place on the River Condominiums. A growing (and rotating) dessert menu offers sinfully delicious treats like Irish cream cake, yellow Vienna cake filled with custard and raspberry, chocolate banana cake, chocolate raspberry cake and cherry pie.

Temper that sweet tooth with one of Cafe Luna’s coffee or espresso drinks, or pick from the nice selection of champagne, wine, cocktails and cordials. Live music—mostly jazz, soul, funk and world genres—can be heard Thursday through Sunday.

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The Metro Bar & Cafe
411 E. Mason St. (414) 272-1937
Dressed to impress, visitors and locals alike make the Metro Bar & Cafe a sexy and playful hot spot for Valentine’s Day. The lofty ceilings and expansive picture windows facing Milwaukee Street conjure an openness that invites a healthy dose of voyeurism from both sides of the glass. The cafe’s menu is extensive, catering to both snackers and fullfledged diners with its large selection of starters, sandwiches, burgers, salads, pastas, pizzas, steaks, chops and seafood. The bar always does a nice job of celebrating holidays with specialized cocktails and drink specials. Extend your Valentine’s Day by taking advantage of the hotel’s “Wine and Dine” package that includes dinner reservations at the Metro Bar & Cafe, complimentary desserts, a bottle of wine, overnight parking and your choice of hotel suite.

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Photos by Kate Engbring