Some romantic advice

Let’s talk about girls and guys. Let’s talk about them in shallow generalities. Birthdays are a big deal for girls. They want cards and flowers and a nice dinner and a free pass to the day spa. Guys couldn’t care less. But because girls care about birthdays, especially their own, guys live in mortal terror of screwing up their girlfriend’s special day. We will do anything to make sure it is a success. Credo experto. Take it from one who has tried.

As guys grow older and, if not necessarily wiser, more apt to follow the path of least resistance, they begin to realize there’s probably nothing they can do to make their girlfriend’s or wife’s birthday as perfect as she needs it to be. So we let someone else do the work. That’s where places like Chanterelle come in handy.

Chanterelle, which resides in the split-level basement beneath the refurbished Midtown Victorian structure known as the Sterling Hotel, is one of those fancy continental places where entrées can exceed $20. The bottom line with such places is usually: “Do you get what you pay for?” But it being the Junebug’s birthday on our most recent visit, a temporary standard was put in place. Would the meal fulfill the Junebug’s expectations on this, her most special of special days?

We didn’t exactly get off to a flying start. Cut-glass leaded windows and other Victorian styling cues give Chanterelle’s dining area a feeling of understated elegance, but on a cold spring evening, its semi-subterranean location left us feeling chilly and damp, and a basement odor permeated the place. It required a conscious effort to ignore this not altogether unpleasant smell. It was also difficult not to notice that the ribbed material used to upholster the dining chairs has grown somewhat threadbare over the years.

Fortunately, Chanterelle’s cuisine is so above-par it nearly makes up for such discrepancies. Our first dish, a triangular-shaped plate of three crab cakes, each wrapped in nori, was a perfect example of the originality and attention to detail the Midtown restaurant has become known for. The cakes were meaty and delicious. Our only wish was for the ginger and lemon grass sauce to have a little more kick to it.

When I last reviewed Chanterelle three or four years ago, I raved about the Caesar dressing, and I’m happy to report that the salad sauce remains the same. Too many restaurants are timid about letting the taste of anchovies slip through their Caesar dressings; Chanterelle has no such reservations. The dressing was rich and complex, with a slight salty-fish taste, just as it should be.

I’m one of those guys who’d order Tasmanian wombat if it was on the menu, and while the farm-raised boneless venison from New Zealand wasn’t quite that exotic, it certainly satisfied my need for challenging cuisine. The loin, medium rare, sliced thin and served with scalloped potatoes and steamed asparagus, was tender, lean and juicy, with just a hint of inherent wildness. It blended perfectly with its sauce of white raisins, currants and Zinfandel.

Habitually a fish woman, the Junebug pulled a change-up on her birthday and ordered the veal medallion special. The medallions were plentiful, white and tender, served in a sauce that amazingly blended the disparate flavors of sautéed artichoke hearts and crayfish under a topping of batter-fried leeks. Give Chanterelle an “I” for ingenuity.

We capped it all off with a house-made key lime tart featuring tangy custard and whipped cream on a shortbread cookie crust surrounded by fresh blackberries. By the time she had finished, the Junebug had forgotten all about that basement smell and the threadbare chairs, and I was off the hook for the birthday dinner.

Still gotta come up with the card, the flowers and the free pass to the day spa, though. I am, after all, a guy.