Smile Politely

Date Lab: The ultimate Valentine’s Day date

Happy New Year, Folks! Date Lab is back, just in time for the biggest date night of the year: February 14th. Valentine’s Day. Also known as a day more polarizing than a Donald Trump Rally. People seem to love or HATE this day, but I’m hoping that this Date Lab will solve your qualms with Valentine’s Day activity ideas. I venture to state that I have done something nearly impossible: I have found a date that works perfectly for couples and single individuals. I know, I know. It almost seems more likely that Donald Trump will be elected President, but I’m completely confident with this one.

Let’s set the stage. The place: Radio Maria, the time: evening. Enter the restaurant. Intimately set tables (complete with little flowers arrangements), each uniquely decorated. Tall ceilings, exposed brick, original art, large picture windows, intimate lighting. The perfect mix of welcoming, cozy, modern, chic and eclectic. Radio Maria is known for its tapas, though it does have a fabulous dinner menu. Let me lay out a scientific fact for you: tapas are perfect for dates. Science has proven it (probably). Tapas are Spanish in origin, often ordered as a series of small plates designed to be passed and shared. Tapas allow for a more intimate dining experience, on in which you decide jointly on a few dishes and share them with your SO. Imagine ordering a delicious cheese and bread plate and while passing it, you brush hands. BOOM Romance.

As appropriate as they are for sharing with a date, tapas are an absolute blast with friends. Grab a few plates, share and try something new. A lovely experience for everyone and the perfect opportunity to share an experience while bonding over food (and who doesn’t love that). Radio Maria allows you to order tapas as you go, meaning you can spend a few hours talking with friends and ordering as you please rather than having one large meal that you must eat at one time. I asked my friend Jon to join me, as Tyler was on a actual date (whatever, it’s not like I’m bitter about that…). Together, we selected a variety of tapas which I have assessed for your reading pleasure below:

Sautéed Calamari: This was one of my personal favorite dishes. The calamari is sautéed with garlic, Spanish chorizo, squid ink vinaigrette and topped with a few potato chips, an unconventional, but delicious garnish. The calamari was perfectly cooked and the flavors shine on their own, but provide a beautiful fusion of spicy, mellow and salty flavors when combined. The chips provide a perfectly crunchy contrast to the smooth calamari pieces and visually, this dish provides diners with a unique mix of colors and textures. This dish rings in a the high end of the tapas price scale at $9.50.

Queso de Cabra Frito: Jon and I agreed, this dish got the gold medal. Served on two plates, three fried goat cheese balls are presented, drizzled in jamica honey. The rich goat cheese and delicate honey dance together across the angular baguette pieces provided. I found myself using pieces of bread from other dishes to scoop up the left over honey long after the cheese vanished. This delightful dish is absolutely worth the $6.50 price tag.

Fried Artichoke Hearts: This was Jon’s choice and proved to be a great contrast to the louder dishes on the table. Artichoke hearts are lightly fried with lemon, olive oil, feta, and sage and were appropriately crunchy without overpowering the flavors of the vegetable. Easy on the palatte and wallet at $7 for a heaping helping.

Baked Olives: I adore olives so this particular dish seemed like a no-brainer to me. Served in its own little cast iron skillet, these olives are draped with spicy tomato sauce, feta, lemon, olive oil and served warm with bread. This was a very solid comfort food choice, warm and rich, and perfect to pile on bread but I found that there was too much sauce served with the olives. $6.50

Warm Bread and Butter: To round out our choices, we chose the warm bread and butter plate,  six fresh baked breads presented alongside house made compound butters. My favorite part of this dish was the element of surprise. Each time I go to Radio Maria, I receive a different set of butters. This time around, we received BBQ Bacon, Pina Colada, Blackberry Maple and Sriracha. The Pina Colada was fabulous and tasted like a light frosting and the blackberry maple was the perfect balance of fruit, tart and sweet. Jon loved the kick from the Sriracha and the BBQ Bacon honors the ever popular form of pork. $6

Radio Maria has a fabulous drink menu with a great selection of beer, wine, and craft cocktails along with tea, which I really felt the need to order for some reason. All in all, you cannot possibly go wrong with Radio Maria for a Valentine’s day date, with friends or with your significant other. Even Donald and Hilary can agree on that one.

I must briefly touch on the other element of the Date Lab mission: the activity. Since everyone is touched by Valentine’s Day in some way, I’ve decided to include a variety of activities for all sorts of people. Jon and I spent our evening at Radio Maria playing Valentine’s Day bingo, the card for which I’ve included in this article to print and use for your own enjoyment. We had a blast and all you need it the card, a good sense of humor and no qualms with people watching. The other activities are all accessible in C-U and could make a perfect complement to your 2016 Valentine’s Day schedule. Until next month folks, I’m over and out.

Valentine’s Day Activities

For the Romantics
Casa Blanca at the Art Theater: 126 W Church St, Champaign
Cupcakes at Cream & Flutter: 114 N Walnut St, Champaign
Coffees at Cafe Kopi: 109 N Walnut St, Champaign

For the Adventurous
Climbing at Urbana Boulders: 1502 N Cunningham Ave, Urbana
Show at The Krannert Center, Kingdom City: 500 S Goodwin Ave, Urbana
Ice Skating at the UIUC Ice Arena – Open to all (not just students): 406 E Armory Ave, Champaign

For the Chill
Netflix or Movie Rental
Baking Cookies or a Cake (I’d recommend Pinterest for recipies)
Answering 36 Questions to Fall in Love

Photos by Stephanie Svarz

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