With Valentine’s Day we anticipate romantic dinners and flickering candlelight, flowers and chocolates, and food that stimulates the senses. The oyster has long been recognized for its aphrodisiac properties and Louisiana oysters are the best. What better way to celebrate a cupid’s kiss than with a round of salty, plump bivalves in a luxurious, buttery sauce, finished off with a sinfully rich chocolate dessert? Now that’s amore.
Cassanova, the 18th-century lover who would breakfast on 50 oysters, has been vindicated with a study that proves they really are aphrodisiacs by a team of American and Italian researchers. They reported that bivalve mollusks are rich in rare amino acids that trigger increased levels of sex hormones (previous speculation about the powers of oysters has centered on the refueling powers of their high zinc content).
Even if a dozen or so doesn’t achieve the desired effect, your taste buds are sure to dance with the mollusks at Vincent’s (504-866-9313), a charming Italian restaurant on verdant St. Charles Avenue near French Fountains in New Orleans. The streetcars recently began running in this area again, and couples can be seen hopping off the line to stop in for a bite. Parking is tight.
For a romantic Valentine’s dinner with oysters that tantalize the senses, head to Vincent’s and ease into nostalgia with mood music by such crooners as Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Tony Bennett, and Harry Connick, Jr. The owners recently put a few café tables outside, where people can wait for available tables or dine under the stars.
Although I prefer dining inside, dinner outdoors is actually quite nice in good weather, with the lovely view of twinkling lights and the trickling water from a garden of fountains across the street. If there is a wait for tables, which is quite common since the place is extremely popular, diners can also wait in the cozy bar. Order a round of appetizers while you are at it (tip: seafood stuffed mushrooms or the eggplant sandwich layered with fried medallions of eggplant stuffed with cheese, sausage, tomatoes, and basil, topped with red sauce).
There are also several four-top tables in the small bar area, where I have dined many times with friends to the approval of all (the service is wonderful). Breadsticks and soft butter are served upon arrival.
The tables are spaced closely, and rather than feeling too tight, it creates a charming atmosphere in the dimly lit, intimate dining room. There are two small dining rooms in the back. You can draw the curtains for added privacy in the Forties room, while the Fifties room is for larger parties. The dining rooms are always jamming.
The salads are lovely and the corn and crabmeat bisque is a must-try: smooth as velvet, tinged with vermouth, and served in a toasted bread bowl. A new soup worth sampling is an asparagus cream soup which is nice and light. Fresh asparagus tips are simmered in a cream based stock and finished with smoked Gouda to give it added dimension.
For oyster lovers, start with the outstanding oysters Rockefeller. Deep fried oysters are served on the half shell, topped with fresh sautéed spinach laced with Parmesan cheese and Sambuca, a licorice based liqueur. You will long for more, especially if you are on that big date. The sultry oysters are finished with a luscious lemon cream. Another fine oyster dish is the almondine, which is also finished with lemon cream and topped with toasted almonds.
Italian food such as pasta has been long associated with romance, and the best pasta dish to order at Vincent’s is the cannelloni. A fresh crepe is rolled around ground baby veal, puréed spinach and Parmesan cheese, cooked in a light cream sauce, and topped with Vincent’s famous red sauce.
Other classics such as angel hair bordelaise, fettuccine Alfredo (order it with shrimp), and spaghetti and meatballs are also available, but I find that it is always worth trying the chef’s daily specials. When available, order the homemade lasagna with veal, Italian sausage and ground beef, and three cheeses, finished with baked mozzarella on top. Another recommended special is the fresh puttanesca designed with grilled shrimp, zucchini, squash, eggplant, sun-dried tomato, and fresh garlic. It is a nice and spicy concoction served over fettuccine.
One of the most popular specials is the Vincent St. Charles. Panéed veal is stacked Napoleon style with jumbo lump crabmeat topped with a crawfish cream with jumbo gulf shrimp, crawfish, tri-colored peppers, butter and cream, finished with a blackened seasoning “that gives it a nice, spicy flavor,” according to Chef Billy LaCrosse who creates the nightly specials.
“Both my grandfathers were chefs and I trained with them,” he explains. “For Valentine’s Day, I’ll have an entire menu with foods that are a bit lighter, in addition to chocolate desserts. I’ll be doing a white chocolate raspberry crème brulée, chocolate covered strawberries, and perhaps raspberry sorbet.”
Steak lovers will enjoy the succulent nine-ounce filet, which can be served with a burgundy mushroom sauce and brabant potatoes seasoned with a red pepper bordelaise. The osso bucco is very popular; a quarter shank of veal is slow-cooked for six hours in veal demi-glace, served with angel hair pasta with big chunks of carrots strewn around.
“I really like to cater to vegetarians because not enough restaurants do this,” Chef LaCrosse says. “We do pasta primavera, veggies cooked in butter and garlic, and other items can also be served as a vegetarian dish upon request. I don’t limit myself to particular styles of cooking. I feature different countries and regions,” he comments. “We are influenced by Italian and Creole but I throw in extra things. I like to give things a twist.”
Vincent’s, which has another location in Metairie, was opened in 1998 by Vincent Catalanotto and Anthony Imbraguglio. The owners say they have witnessed countless marriage proposals at the restaurant.
Before you pop the question, or begin speaking the language of love, order a main course of sautéed Italian oysters, or prepare them at home (see following recipe). As the saying goes, eat oysters and love longer. A chocolate dipped strawberry or two can also add luster to the night.