Pet Peeve: Valentine's day meals

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 February, 2013, 9:38am

The original purpose of Valentine's Day was to commemorate a saint. Tonight restaurants all over the world will mark it by putting on a performance that would try the patience of one.

One February 14, at some otherwise unspecified point in the third century AD, a Roman christian named Valentinus is believed to have been martyred for his faith.

During the Middle Ages, for no apparent reason, the saint's day he had been allocated was shanghaied for the obligatory observance of various romantic rituals. By the mid-20th century this had developed into a full-blown industry.

One wonders what Valentinus would have made of the unscrupulous retailers and restaurateurs who annually take his name in vain in pursuit of a quick profit.

Try to buy a dozen red roses on February 13 or 14 and you will gain an illuminating insight into the inflationary implications of a short-term surge in demand for a particular product.

Then there are the hours wasted searching through racks of ghastly greetings cards in the forlorn hope of finding one that it is possible to sign - if only as a "Secret Admirer" - without suffering embarrassment at the sentimental slush or vulgar innuendo printed on it.

The extent to which you will be overcharged for these annoyances, however, is as nothing in comparison with the extortion you will experience when the restaurant bill is presented for your Valentine's Day "romantic dinner".

There is nothing wrong with the idea of a romantic dinner per se. But you are unlikely to get one in a restaurant advertising a Valentine's Day menu on February 14.

This evening is not about couples staring into each other's eyes. It is about turning over tables quickly, having extracted the maximum possible charge per cover.

A romantic meal should be unhurried, subject to minimal interruption, and consist of dishes to the taste of the two diners

The essential elements of romantic dining vary according to taste. Some like to eat by candle light. Others prefer to be able to see the food they are eating, not to mention the person they are eating it with.

For some, a romantic evening is one spent in an inexpensive local bistro with friendly staff, and fond memories of past evenings shared there. For others it is the kind of night on the town for which you take out both a lover and a mortgage.

Some couples like to be serenaded by strolling players. Others would be happy to see them all summarily shot, but I think we can all agree that a romantic meal should be unhurried, subject to minimal interruption from restaurant service staff, and consist of dishes to the taste of the two diners. Good luck with that tonight.

Assuming that you can get a table at all you are likely to be dining not at leisure but in one of two hurried shifts, running from either 6.30pm to 8.15pm, or 8.30pm to the earliest possible point at which your exhausted waiter can persuade you to leave.

It is interesting to note this year that the two sittings system - perhaps the single shoddiest bit of grasping opportunism in which the restaurant trade indulges on Valentine's Day - has been stretched by some venues as far as three.

Several restaurants started serving their Valentine's Day menus yesterday, so I suppose some of you have already got the ordeal over with.

For those queasily contemplating this evening, however, I hope you like champagne. Not that it will make any difference, because you won't have the option of not drinking it. The waiter will make it clear that if you don't order at least a couple of glasses you will be short-changing both him and your date.

You also won't have the option of dining à la carte. The carte has taken the day off, and if you want to choose your own dishes the best you will be able to manage is a romantic buffet, probably surmounted by a Cupid ice carving.

On Valentine's Day, set menus are the rule, and wading through the torrent of promotional drivel I have been sent on behalf of Hong Kong restaurants hoping to make a killing this evening I have been struck by the monotonous similarity of the offerings.

Those intending to spend HK$1,000 per head or more - and it will be very difficult to spend less - are all likely to be confronted with dishes based on a remarkably short list of ingredients.

These are chosen because they are known to be expensive enough to justify the evening's inflated prices, or because they have dubious claims to aphrodisiac properties.

Expect a heavy emphasis on oysters, caviar, foie gras, lobster, beef, and phallic asparagus spears, followed by some kind of dessert with passion fruit and chocolates in the shape of a Valentine's heart, and in nine out of 10 cases you will have guessed about right.

The worst aspect of most of the set menus being served tonight, however, won't be so much the dishes on them as the gruesome reading they make.

Characteristically the misguided souls who write them will employ the same sort of language as the greeting cards - sentimentally gushing or rib-nudgingly suggestive.

Or, in the case of a Bonnae Gokson menu, both.

The C'est La B cafes are actually offering one of the better deals this evening, at HK$320 plus the usual 10 per cent, but having already sent your date the message that you are economising on them, do you then want them to think your idea of a classy joint is one which sub-literately calls a tomato bisque "Red & Hot For U" and cumbersomely describes a dessert as "A Little Sweetness For The Day To Say I Love You"?

"Our cheerful concept embraces fun, colour, humour and life," says Gokson. Tonight, however - or come to that any other night - it won't be embracing me.

New Year's Eve and Valentine's Day are dates on which people who like what restaurants do on normal business days should stay at home.

You could, of course, go to a good Chinese restaurant, which will be conducting business as usual, but if Western-style romantic dining is what your significant other requires, one of the most seductive things you could do this evening is some work in the kitchen.

A typical restaurant Valentine's Day dinner is not that hard to prepare at home. Light a few candles and enjoy the evening at your own unhurried pace.

It helps if you also do the washing up. And spare a thought for poor forgotten St Valentine himself. Don't be too much of a martyr about it.