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Dining for desire 

Foods that get you in the mood

Before I wrote about restaurants, I worked in restaurants; for years, my career focused on providing good service and food rather than commenting on service and food.

So I feel equipped to let you in on a little industry secret: Valentine's Day is one of the worst nights of the year to go out and eat. Apart from the obvious pressure to find a reservation at an appropriately romantic restaurant, there are other reasons why dining out on this particular day is problematic. It's one of the busiest nights of the year. The staffs are stressed and frantic. Restaurant people often refer to this night, along with New Year's Eve, as "amateur night" -- the night when people who wouldn't usually dine out (and therefore don't know how to behave in a restaurant) descend on the city's dining rooms en masse.

I wouldn't take it upon myself to pass that kind of judgment; I'm just conveying the information.

And now, allow me to backpedal furiously. There are many fine establishments in town that are putting on admirable dinners for those of you foolhardy (cough! I mean romantic) enough to go that route. Anyway -- who am I kidding? There's no way that my comments will dissuade the public from pouring into Atlanta's restaurants next Wednesday. But Valentine's Day isn't just about spending lots of money and being out on the town -- it's about getting laid! So, I thought this week we would take a look at the foods that have the reputation of ramping up those amorous juices. Whether you decide to participate in the Valentine's madness on the town or enact your seduction at home, I'll give you some suggestions about where to find this fever-producing food.

Aphrodisiacs have a long and varied history, and the origins of their status differ. Many reputations were made at a time when the greatest threat to libido was undernourishment. Modelizers, take note -- those skinny rails may look hot, but anorexia, apart from causing bad breath, has a serious dampening effect on sex drive. But many foods gained their notoriety in part or whole because of their resemblance to human naughty bits.

Historically, this led to many fruits, particularly New World varieties unfamiliar to the prudish eyes of Europeans, being labeled aphrodisiac. Really, once you start researching, you can find that almost any food, no matter how common, has at one point been linked to lust. Take the tomato -- as Stewart Lee Allen describes it in his 2002 book In The Devil's Garden: A Sinful History of Forbidden Foods, "a slut-red fruit oozing lugubrious juices and exploding with electric flavors. Clearly an aphrodisiac." So, it may seem that it's possible to relate love to almost anything, rendering the discussion of aphrodisiacs almost pointless.

But I do think that Valentine's Day is a good time to think about the inherent sexiness of foods, of eating, of hunger and satisfying that hunger. Fruit is sexy. And there are a few foods that have stood the test of time, never losing their scandalous reputations as lover's aids.

The most famous of aphrodisiacs, and one that works with both the nutrition and the look-alike theory, is the oyster. This can also be said for the avocado and the banana. All of these are highly nutritious and have an almost alarming genital resemblance. But the oyster is the most luxurious of foods, and incredibly sexy to eat if slurped from the shell in its own juices and washed down with champagne. There aren't nearly enough restaurants in Atlanta that serve a sufficient variety of oysters, but they are available -- I suggest getting a combination of East and West Coast varieties so you can savor the differences in texture and flavor. You can find a decent selection at the Oceanaire (www.theoceanaire.com/atlanta) and at Bluepointe (www.buckheadrestaurants.com/bluepointe). The DeKalb Farmers Market carries them if you want to feed the oysters to your lover at home.

There's no doubt that items of great luxury are sexy, and one of food's most luxurious delicacies also has been touted throughout the ages as a powerful aphrodisiac. When Louis XV's mistress, Madame de Pompadour, was revealed as a prude, the king put her on a diet of creamed truffle soup to ramp up her libido. The truffle's musky aroma has been likened to the scent of the tousled sheets of a brothel bed. Scientists have apparently identified the pheromone in truffles to be the same as the one that makes male pigs attractive to their girlfriends.

Hey, if it works for swine, why not you?

Many restaurants around town feature truffles on their menus, and you can almost always find some kind of sumptuous truffle dish at the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton. Star Provisions is offering a special take-home meal for two this Valentine's Day that includes a bean salad with truffle vinaigrette, for $115 (call 404-365-0410, ext. 134, before 6 p.m. Monday, Feb. 12, to place an order). They also sell fresh truffles occasionally, for you do-it-yourselfers, although the going rate this year for black truffles is around $1,500 per pound (one truffle is usually less than an ounce). Or you can pick up some truffle oil at almost any gourmet store for less than $20.

Then, of course, there is the grand finish to an amorous dinner, the course that is most likely to excite: dessert. While chocolate may be the king of aphrodisiacs, it is certainly not the only choice. My personal opinion is that the sexiest dessert is stinky, oozy cheese. There's something highly erotic about the texture and so-wrong-it's-right taste of an overripe soft cheese. Then, there's always the fig, which many believe was Eve's true fruit of knowledge, making it possibly the original aphrodisiac. It certainly wins the human resemblance prize if you ask me, male when it's whole and female when you break it open.

Chocolate has its own rich history, being the bedroom trick of many famous lovers, including the Marquis de Sade and Madame du Barry, Louis XV's famous streetwalker-turned-royal mistress (who took the place of Madame de Pompadour when the truffle soup wore off). I don't need to tell you where to get chocolate in this town -- every dessert menu in every restaurant should oblige you.

Whatever you decide -- whether you brave the crowded halls of dining or opt for a romantic dinner at home -- don't forget to enjoy all the sensory pleasures that food has to offer.

Happy Valentine's Day. I hope you get lucky.

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