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The Perfect Pair 

Matches made in -- the kitchen

Long before Whitman created the famous index to their chocolate sampler box and Necco introduced their conversation hearts (a candy which is, by the way, 101 years old this month), Valentine's Day has been a day set aside to celebrate twosomes.Who was Saint Valentine? The Catholic Saint Encyclopedia reveals three individuals named Saint Valentine. Of the legends associated with these three people, one Roman priest stands out. This Saint Valentine was beheaded (hence the red motif) in 269 CE as a punishment for marrying people. Evidently Roman Emperor Claudius II was concerned that young men would not willingly go into battle if loved ones were defenseless at home. Subsequently Claudius banned marriages in his empire and made the punishment for performing a marriage death. St. Valentine ignored the edict and paid the price.

By the Middle Ages, St. Valentine's Day was celebrated on February 14, a time known for natural pairing. As Chaucer noted, "on Seynt Valenyne's day, every foul (fowl) cometh ther to choose his mate." Finding the right match is at the heart of romance and relationships. Some enduring pairs are obvious: Romeo and Juliet, Daisy and Donald, Ozzy and Sharon. Some are not. Such was the case of the implausible match of Rose, the prim British missionary, and the gin-drinking supply captain Charlie in The African Queen.

Food, too, has famous pairings: eggs and sausage, peaches and cream, basil and tomatoes. Some pairs are obvious. Some are not. As Valentine's Day approached, I spoke to some local chefs and restaurateurs to find out their favorite food twosomes.

Lemon and thyme are the perfect pairing for Chef Mark Martin of Ethan's of Elizabeth American Bistro. He looks for foods which balance "sweetness and acidity, crispness and moist, like chilies with fruit." He relishes combinations that are "pure, simple, and fresh." Rob Crenshaw of NoDa's Cabo Fish Taco Baja Seagrill also likes the play of spicy and sweet. He particularity likes the flavors of grilled white fish and fruit. He says, "I take mango and papaya with red, green, and jalapeo peppers, add lime juice, cook it down and serve over mahi or grouper."

Geoff Bragg, chef at The Peaceful Dragon Cultural Center, has a yin yang approach to his selection. "The perfect couple is ginger and garlic," he says. "You have the robust flavor of the garlic, which makes your blood hot, and then the ginger, which is calming. They add several layers of flavors when they are together: the earthiness of the garlic and tanginess of ginger."

Chef Thomas Maier of Pineville's Waldhorn Restaurant selected a food combination from his menu. "I like venison with lingonberries because the sweet tartness of the lingonberries balances the gaminess of the venison. To this, I add a wild mushroom ragout which blends well together." Tart-sweet is also a preference for Jamie Lynch, a cook at Dish. "The perfect food pairing would have to be bay scallops and blood oranges," says Lynch. "We don't serve them here because we are Southern comfort food." But he adds, "We might run it as a special sometime."

Jason Pound, chef of Latorre's Latin-American Cuisine and the soon to open Aquavino, could not decide on a single pairing. "I like orange and chocolate together. I like the way it goes down," he says. "Also foie gras with steak, and lime and garlic go well with avocado."

The contrast of deep fried fish with Mexican salsa is the food pair picked by Chef Yoshi Takusagawa of Sekisui. "Pico de Gallo complements, modifies, the taste, the fishiness, of the fish," he says. Takusagawa also delights in tempura calamari with his Asian sauce, a mix of fish sauce ("which is stinky, but nice"), avocado, onions, tomatoes and jalapeo peppers. It's not surprising that Lee Katz of Katz New York likes corned beef and knish. He notes, "The flavor from the corned beef is brought out from the knish, mashed potato in a fried pastry, and the spice from the deli mustard. It's an unbeatable mix."

Chef Chris Zion of The Meeting House enjoys the pairing of cuisines and cooking techniques, especially the combination of Asian and French, such as duck confit won tons. "One of my favorite combinations is to take a whole duck," he responds, "and use honey, coriander, garlic, turmeric, and mace and then roast it in a classically French fashion."

Restaurateur Narayan Mogera of Woodlands Pure Vegetarian South Indian Cuisine sticks with flavors indigenous to India. He prefers a deep fried vegetable dumpling in a creamy sauce. He notes, "The sauce base has onion, tomato, and almond. It is rich and smooth and goes well with the crispy dumpling. I also like the Spring Dosai with spicy chutney, potatoes, and finely chopped vegetables. It gives a good vegetable flavor."

Among those selecting more classical pairings was Sean Minahan, chef of Bistro 100. He says, "For Valentine's Day, I love the flavor of good caviar, good lobster, and good champagne, but otherwise, I am a big fan of salads and meat. A well charred rib eye and fresh from the garden spinach is a great combination. I love those flavors. Basically I am a meat and potatoes guy. Although I love to experiment with flavors, red meat and potatoes is a classic combination."

Chef Jim Alexander of Zebra Restaurant & Wine Bar went with lobster and butter as the classic combination. "Although," he adds, "Au poivre, fresh black pepper, to red meat is a wonderful combination."

Over at Sonoma Bistro, Chef Tim Groody cites cornflakes and milk as a classic pair as well as citrus and beets. He also notes fennel and raw oysters as an excellent team. Says Groody, "They go well together because the saltiness and brine of the oysters balances the fennel, which is real sweet. This has a sweet and salty contrast. Plus the fennel has a crunch to go against it. Throw in a little citrus, and the combination is golden." Then I reminded him that adding the citrus constitutes a threesome. "Well," he says, "to each his own."

Do you have a restaurant tip, compliment, complaint? Do you know of a restaurant which has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine or wine events? You can fax this information, at least 12 days in advance of event date, to Eaters' Digest: 704-944-3605, or leave voice mail: 704-522-8334, ext. 136.

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