Chocolate, caviar, and champagne are the only foods that are truly romantic, and if you're in love you don't need any more nutrition than that. But it's been a while for me, and it may be that modern love needs more sustenance than it used to.
A recent dinner at St. Martins provided plenty. Of sustenance, that is. It was not the beginning of a love affair for me, but St. Martins has plenty of lovers already.
St. Martins is a lovely little place, all polished wood with shining mirrors, divided into two dining rooms; we were seated on the long side next to the bar. Our waitress was gracious and knowledgeable about the wines available by the glass, as well as the menu specials listed on the unfortunately unreadable blackboard. It's a good thing she did know them, or we never would have.
Unfortunately, in relationships and in restaurants, first impressions count for so much. And though the place and the service were appealing, the bread basket, for starters, was not. There's no excuse anymore for whipped butter and airy bread in a good restaurant. There are lots of places to procure a first-rate loaf. Our first quarrel...
Shrimp St. Martins, an appetizer, featured nicely cooked shrimp mixed in a gratin with artichokes, tomatoes, garlic, mushrooms, and basil--disparate elements that never seemed to marry or even to get to know one another very well. They had only a nodding acquaintance, and the surrounding circumstances (such as sauce) that could have brought them together did nothing to bring them closer. Brazilian snails sauteed in lemon butter and garlic were hot and flavorful; unfortunately, they were also a little bit gritty in the first bite, so the rest of the relationship suffered. How could we trust them after that?
The menu lists a wisely edited selection of entrees, as well as pate and cheese boards. Most of the dishes are vaguely "continental," riffs on such familiar luxury foods as veal loin, lamb chops, trout, and tenderloin--foods that allow you to splurge, to feel experimental, but still be pretty certain you're going to like what you order.
We tried the special from the blackboard--like an updated version of surf 'n' turf, the little steak in a Bordelaise sauce sat next to a gratin dish of sizzling scallops. Again, though I think the ingredients on a plate ought to relate to and complement each other, the scallops and the beef here were merely plate-mates, nothing more.
You may conclude romance was not on my mind when I ordered the duck, a whole half of a bird glazed in apricot and brandy and served with a "duck cheesecake." This was good. The oddly named cheesecake was actually more like a rich dressing or creamy quiche, filled with bits of duck, that underscored the fat flavor of the duck. Finally, this plate was a working marriage, so a bite of the duck helped a bite of the "cheesecake."
There was a long list of desserts on that blackboard. We decided to go for cheesecake again--plain, please--and it was very good.
--Mary Brown Malouf
St. Martins, 3020 Greenville Ave., 826-0940. Open for dinner Monday- Friday, 5-10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 p.m.-12 a.m.; for brunch Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m.-3 p.m.
Shrimp St. Martin $6.95
Escargots de Limoux $6.95
Apricot Roasted Duck $17.95
Choice of Three Cheeses and Pates $10.