Thursday, February 17, 2011

Cuisine Contra + PinkLine Project = Valentine fun

Cuisine Contra
Mexican Cultural Center
Washington, DC

Valentine's Day has always left me cold. Too many expectations, too much drama. It's the worst night of the year to go out for dinner. (OK, maybe New Year's Eve is worse.) Diners in search of a romantic evening face crowds and overpriced prix-fixe menus.

Cuisine Contra's Valentine event was the perfect antidote to stale custom and saccharine sentiment. Grown-up but not fuddy-duddy. Zesty but not outré.

You have an idea that you're going to an interesting event when you're asked to submit, along with your payment, a story of a time that you tried to seduce someone. (If the stories were ever made public, it occurred late in the evening, after I left the event.)

We were in good hands when it came to the food. Top Chef contestant Mike Isabella, formerly of Zaytinya, was trying out dishes for his new restaurant, Graffiato, set to open this spring in Penn Quarter.

We sampled a homey pulled-chicken dish, cheesy grits, garlicky shrimp and a light creamy pasta. A charcuterie platter held thin slices of an intriguingly spiced meat that looked deceptively like bologna. A server claimed that the delicious beet salad contained chocolate; as in a Spanish mole sauce, the flavor was imperceptable. The sole concession to Valentine tradition, tiny cups of chocolate-hazelnut mousse, was sumptuous.

I lingered in the solarium/cafe, drawn by the cocktails made from St. Germain elderflower liquor and sparkling wine. There was a sleek and simple DIY photo booth, and books of romantic and erotic poetry on every table. When was the last time you went to a party where guests actually read aloud?

Cuisine Contra is part of the Pink Line Project, which describes itself as "a catalyst for the culturally curious" and a booster for the local arts scene.

The woman in the flowered skirt (chicken wire covered with paper flowers) was acting as Cupid. If you spotted an interesting stranger, she would deliver a message from you, along with a flower. If the targeted stranger was intrigued, s/he could meet the sender by searching for the person with a matching flower.

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