Snails move slowly and deliberately.
Steak should be tender and desirable.
Swans are a symbol of sweetness and love.
That’s why Escargots Provencale, Tournedos of Beef Tenderloin and Swans of “Amour” — with chocolate and marzipan hearts — make up the perfect Valentine’s Day menu for chef Dominique Christini at Cafe Largo.
He will be offering those options at his Largo restaurant on Feb. 13 and 14 to give more customers an opportunity to celebrate with the current social distancing situation.
Food, for Christini, “definitely beats diamonds.”
His tenderloin steaks, carefully carved and pan-seared, “are part of the recipe to make love happen,” says the French-born chef and restaurateur. “It’s a gift of Mother Nature.”
Christini and his wife, Kathy, opened the cafe, located at the end of a courtyard at the Galleria Plaza off Indian Rocks Road, in 1986.
Trained in Nice, near his hometown in the South of France, Christini came to the United States in the early 1970s as part of an exchange program for chefs at Indiana University. He returned to France to complete a year of mandatory military service and was assigned to cook for a general in Marseille.
Afterward, he reached out to American chefs who had offered him jobs in Atlanta, New York and Cincinnati. He flew to the United States and called each of them as soon as he arrived. “The chef at the Hilton in Cincinnati was the first to answer the phone,” he said. So, he went to Cincinnati.
After a series of moves with the hotel chain, his marriage and the births of his son and daughter, followed by a cooking stint at a private club, “I knew the next move had to be my own,” he said. Like so many transplants, he and Kathy were drawn to Florida’s west coast for the weather and way of life.
Ever since opening Cafe Largo, he has been working to “create a perfect atmosphere for romance.”
His specialty is classic French cuisine, where salted butter, cooking only with wine good enough to drink and making sauces from scratch are among the kitchen rules.
A special Valentine’s Day meal “is an investment in yourself and your companion,” Christini said. Those who got reservations for his sold-out meal will pay $112.50 per person for choices of appetizers, entrees of lamb, seafood or beef, a shared pastry dessert and a bottle of Champagne Henriot.
Christini chose each dish for the flavors and passion he hopes they will invoke.
His escargot is sauteed with basil and tomatoes and served with a Nice staple, socca, a chickpea flour flatbread. He offers a hot pheasant terrine with truffle sauce and a saffron veloute, garnished with scallops. Red snapper is adorned with shrimp and fennel. And the beef filets are prepared with sauce made from homemade lamb stock and served with Roquefort cheese.
Christini makes his pastry dough from scratch, molds it into swans and fills each with Grand Marnier chantilly cream. He adds a touch of chocolate and a hand-crafted pink marzipan heart to each plate.
French meals are meant to be eaten slowly. “It’s not a 50-yard dash,” says Christini. “You go slowly and know that it’s going to be a beautiful and long evening.”
For those who aren’t ready to dine out, Christini suggests home-cooked meals should still be special. He recommends beef that can be prepared in the oven, on the stove or on the grill. It should be rare for premium flavor, he insists. “It’s been killed once already.”
And a simple chocolate mousse is a perfect finale. Most importantly, Christini says, don’t rush. “Cooking and eating are like relationships,” he said. “They all take time.”
Cafe Largo, 12551 Indian Rocks Road, Largo, is open 5 to 10 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays. Reservations are required and can be made by calling 727-596-6282. cafelargorestaurant.com.