Reservations of Choice

Valentine's Day Dining Ideas

The Exotic Allure of Ararat

I am the Valentine's Scrooge. At the recent meeting of the Chronicle food writers, I emphatically bah-humbugged having to write about Valentine's Day dining options in Austin for the umpteenth time in a row. Now don't get me wrong. It's not that I don't like what our city has to offer in the way of fine, romantic dining. It's just that you couldn't pay me enough (and remember, I do get paid to eat out), to spend my Valentine's evening sharing an intimate dinner with the masses. Another night, maybe. But never on Valentine's Day. As it turns out, even if the idea did appeal to me, I'd be out of luck. Valentine's Day, many Austin restaurateurs will tell you, is the busiest night of the year, and I never think far enough in advance to get reservations.

So at the meeting, in the same breath that I denounced our writing about Austin's hottest dinner tickets, I championed covering the city's "littler guys," places that we, as people paid to eat, would consider visiting on Valentine's Day should we decide against the do-it-yourself dinner at home.

To prove that I'm no romantic killjoy, I'll tell you why Ararat would be my reservation of choice. It has plenty of the requisite "romantic" characteristics -- wall-hugging tables for two, dim lighting, and flickering votives. What's more, its off-the-beaten path location in the northernmost reaches of Hyde Park gives it a mysterious, unspoiled quality. Inside, heavy kilim rugs cover the ceiling, and dark tables fill the small space so completely there is little room to walk. Strains of Arabic music add to the exotic allure and the sampler appetizer platter with its garlicky hummus, baba ghanouj, and other Middle Eastern culinary treasures, promises to get your taste buds up and running.

Ararat doesn't offer alcohol, another reason it seems perfect to me for a particularly romantic dinner out. Feel like uncorking that 1995 Magnum the two of you found years ago during your whirlwind romantic getaway to Bordeaux? Take it with you. No doubt it will stand up admirably to Ararat's out-of-this-world sizzling lamb spiked with equal parts fire and earthy, lamb-y flavors. And on Valentine's Day, it seems infinitely more appropriate than some random wine list pick, however good the restaurant's bottles may be.

Not into lamb? Ararat's selection of kebabs -- dense, succulent, and sensational -- should win you over. And for Valentine's diners of the vegetarian bent, there's always something enticing on the menu that exhibits imagination beyond steamed vegetables or the uninspired (and all-too-common) grilled portobello mushroom. Another plus: Ararat's side dishes stand out on their own. Think lentils, rice blends, couscous, stewed root vegetables, and golden raisins, each infused with the spices of the Orient.

Long appreciated for its aphrodisiac qualities, honey holds a special place on the dessert menu. Leave the table with the heavenly lingering sweetness of an Arabic pastry on the palate, and it might take you hours to come back down to earth. Isn't that what Valentine's Day is all about? Pleasure. Adventure. Abandon. Romance, for me anyway, has little to do with the rat race.

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