Romance...and Ramen??

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Skip the flowers and oysters in favor of an original Valentine's Day

| By Regan Hofmann

It's as reliable as the tides: Come Valentine's Day, creativity goes out the window. Husbands feel they have to bring home long-stemmed red roses, the gift that is dying before it even gets to the recipient. Girlfriends feel they have to buy out the nearest Victoria's Secret, even if their boyfriends have never found ruffles sexy and can't stand the color pink. And restaurants have it twice as bad. Not only do they have to cater to the thousands of couples who feel they're legally bound to going out for a "special dinner" on Feb. 14, they have their own clichés to contend with.

Champagne and oysters to start, filet mignon or lobster as a main and chocolate to finish. Somehow, the Valentine's Day prix fixe menu turns otherwise creative, relevant chefs into hacks.

But does anyone actually want them to? Much like those roses and angel wings, people have been told this is what they're supposed to like so often they've stopped trying to figure out what they actually want. To really prove your love, ditch the truffles and Barefoot Bubbly and give your sweetheart a meal that means something-one they'll actually enjoy.

Most of the standard V-Day foods have some allegedly aphrodisiac properties, be they chemical, cultural or physical. Chocolate gives you a serotonin high, making you feel good about the person sitting across the table. Champagne flutes signal luxury, making you feel like a movie star while getting drunk enough to act like one. And oysters are slurped out of their shells, held in the hand-a sensual exercise tailor-made for a Cinemax late-night original.

Now consider ramen. Japanese noodle-eating tradition demands slurping-anything less is an insult to the chef-and manipulating chopsticks and spoon around the rich broth and tangle of supple, resilient strands found in any reputable ramen-ya is enough to leave any lover feeling handsy. At Ippudo (65 4th Ave., betw. 9th and 10th Sts.,, the dimly lit dark-wood and mirrored interior elevates this homey, sometimes rough-hewn tradition to an elegant evening out. Yes, the wait here is legendary, but you can blow your date's mind by making a same-day, in-person reservation (the only way they'll accept them) and breezing past the crowds later that night.

For a chemical lift, skip over the same molten chocolate cake chefs have been peddling since Jean-Georges Vongerichten ruled the '80s and take the spice road instead. Capsaicin, the compound that gives chile peppers their kick, increases blood circulation, provides an endorphin rush and makes nerve endings extra-sensitive-uncannily mimicking the effects of, as the old Newlywed Game so delicately put it, making whoopee.

Café Asean (117 W. 10th St., betw. Greenwich and 6th Aves., is the rarest of rare: a pan-Asian restaurant whose eclecticism doesn't feel contrived or tacked-on, like the many really-thai-but-we-offer-sushi joints in this town. Asean takes you on a deftly orchestrated tour of the part of the world most intimately familiar with the chile and its many guises, from Singaporean slow-braised short ribs to Vietnamese lemongrass shrimp and nasi goreng, Indonesian fried rice. All are guaranteed to raise your temperature in a candle-lit den of weatherbeaten wood and colonial artifacts.

Or, indulge your shared misanthropy-it's what brought you together in the first place!-and stay home. Swing through the Essex Street Market (120 Essex St., betw. Rivington and Delancey Sts., for a couple of deliciously dirty, funky cheeses from Saxelby Cheesemongers and a rough French loaf from Pain d'Avignon, stop at Russ and Daughters (179 E. Houston St., betw. Allen and Orchard Sts., to pick up some caviar and pre-made blini for that touch of class and ask the staff of September Wines and Spirits (100 Stanton St. #4, at Ludlow St., to recommend a bottle to pull it all together (don't worry, they can).

Set it all out in the living room and snack to your heart's content, safe from the rhinestones-and-roses crowd with the only person you really want to spend time with. Besides, you'll be closer to the bedroom when the mood strikes-a Valentine's Day cliché we can all endorse.

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