Anatomy of a Valentine’s Day Menu

Dish by dish, chef Nicki Hobson of Island Creek Oyster Bar breaks down the camaraderie and research it takes to pull off a successful holiday meal.

There’s a perpetual sense of spontaneity surrounding Island Creek Oyster Bar’s nightly menu. Blood orange is in season? Find a way to sneak it into a crudo. A guy at the docks says they’ve got some can’t-miss New Bedford skate? Make it into a special with artichokes and red potatoes. But as chef de cuisine Nicki Hobson will tell you, that’s what makes planning a holiday menu such a challenge. When you rely upon the freshest ingredients—those reeled in locally and plucked from the earth at their absolute apex—it can make preparations a bit precarious.

“From day-to-day we write our menu based on availability, whether it’s fish, or produce, or whatever,” Hobson says. “But with the Valentine’s menu, kind of like the New Year’s Eve menu, we have to think about it well in advance to make it extra special for our guests. That’s why I try to find something that really inspires me and takes me in a specific direction. Last year was aphrodisiacs and this year Tom [Schlesinger-Guidelli, general manager and wine director of Island Creek Oyster Bar] threw out the idea of cities of love.”

After a month of experimentation, not to mention careful front of the house coordination with Schlesinger-Guidelli, Hobson just recently put the final touches on her Valentine’s specials. We’ve asked her to give us a breakdown of all the faraway destinations, resources, influential ingredients, and even family members that helped shape her singular tribute to romance.

1. Scallop crudo with blood orange and radish

“I always like to have at least one crudo on the menu, so I’m working with these awesome Chatham scallops. These are live scallops that we shuck to-order. They’re still moving as we plate them. I mean, you don’t get any fresher than that! And it marries so well with the blood orange, as well as the sharpness from the radishes, which we get from Sparrow Arc Farm. When you say ‘aphrodisiacs,’ people are going to automatically say strawberries, but we only use seasonal ingredients here. So then I started thinking of winter citrus, which is my favorite. Usually I’ll throw a little heat on there too with some chili oil.”

2. Spanish mackerel with saffron cous cous and chermoula
Wine Pairing: Kir-Yianni’s Akakies Sparkling Rosé

“As I was researching romantic destinations, Morocco was one that kept coming up that I wouldn’t necessarily expect. So I got excited as I started looking at dishes that otherwise would never work on our menu on any way, shape, or form. I latched onto chermoula as a base and just continued from there. For months now, I’ve been asking my fish people down on the pier if they get me some Spanish mackerel, which I assume will be from Florida. So, this is more of a fusion approach, but with the saffron it’s such a great dish for Valentine’s Day. It brings out that beautiful red color on the plate.”

3. Monkfish Schnitzel with chickpea spaetzle and brussels kraut
Wine Pairing: Hirsch ‘Gaisberg’ Premier Cru Riesling Kamptal

“With the Valentine’s menu we have to think about it well in advance to make it extra special for our guests. I try to find something that just inspires me and takes me in a direction. Last year was aphrodisiacs and this year Tom threw out the idea of cities of love. Instead of doing the norm like Paris or Rome I tried to really dig in and see what people consider romantic destinations. So finding something like Prague and drawing some inspiration from that was key on the monkfish schnitzel. Obviously, this is not a typical dish from the Czech Republic; it’s not braised cabbage and potato dumplings. I just tried to draw from those flavors, use ingredients that we have here in New England, and put my own little twist on it. So we have monkfish instead of pork, brussels sprouts in the sauerkraut, and things like that.”

4. Baked Oysters with Meyer lemon cream and breadcrumbs

“Baked Island Creek oysters are such a nice, warming oyster bar kind of a dish. It’s our play on Oysters Rockefeller, but with a nice and light Meyer lemon cream and prosciutto instead of bacon. For the topping, we render out the prosciutto and add in some Meyer lemon zest, fresh herbs, paprika, Tabasco, butter, and panko bread crumbs. We serve that right in the shell. I just think that’s such a beautiful thing when it hits the table.”

5. Stoughton shrimp with black garlic noodles and roasted parsnip broth
Wine Pairing:  Damien Laureau ‘Roche Aux Moines’ Savennieres 

“My parents are flying in from Chicago for the third year in a row and my mom said she wanted something with broth. This isn’t attached to any city in particular, but when I mentioned it to Tom, his face just lit up, so I knew I was onto something. It’s got this wonderful earthiness from the parsnips and maitake mushrooms. And that broth perfectly contrasts with the nice sweetness from the black garlic and shrimp. We source from Sky 8, the very first shrimp farmer in Massachusetts. James Tran contacted us a few months ago when his shrimp farm in Stoughton was really starting to take off. It’s just beautiful stuff: never frozen, sustainable, and chemical-free. You don’t get more local than that. Overall, it’s probably the dish I’m most excited about.”