Mood Food

Hot (and sometimes bothered) on the trail of aphrodisiac dishes

I AM NOT FEELING SEXY. Bundled in long underwear, hiking socks, and a ski hat, I’m all set to seduce a yeti. My date is almost certainly wearing two pairs of everything I am. If we tried to kiss, we would bounce off each other like billiard balls. If ever there was a time for an aphrodisiac, this is it.

Aphrodisiacs remind most people of powders purveyed in naughty magazines or in the back-alley shops of Hong Kong, which take something like rhino horn or tiger penis—name your phallic symbol—and grind one species after another toward extinction for the sake of well, extinction’s opposite. Most of it sounds like more hooey than a pick-up line. But could a billion Chinese be wrong? That’s what I was supposed to find out, by visiting local restaurants and sampling not some Love Potion No. 9 but foods said to inspire romance. And although I was bringing along my girlfriend, not a stranger who wouldn’t realize what hit her till she woke up in Mexico smelling of whale vomit (yes, another reputed aphrodisiac), the test would be true: if any dish could assist in the shedding of even one layer in a Minnesota winter, we’d have ourselves an aphrodisiac.

Photo by Terry Brennan

We begin at Ginger Asian Bistro, which occupies an old house near the crossroads at 50th and France in Edina. Ginger is one of the world’s most venerable aphrodisiacs. The famous French courtesan Madame du Barry is said to have served ginger to all of her lovers, including King Louis XV, who was reportedly reduced to a state of utter submissiveness. The substance is said to stimulate the circulatory system, get the blood pumping. Or, as our waitress says in halting English, “It opens you up. If you’re on the cold side, this will help you heat up.” Though, she adds, “if you’re on the hot side, this won’t help much.” Nearly everything on the menu comes with ginger; I ask for the dish with the absolute most. “We can always add more,” the waitress offers. “Spice things up a bit.”

We order vegetable dumplings with ginger sauce, a ginseng-ginger soup, ginger-broccoli tofu with red peppers, and something called the Pineapple Festival—the dish most laden with ginger. It turns out to be sweet-and-sour chicken spilling out of a decapitated pineapple—the plumy head rests beside it on the plate with a pink umbrella stuck in like a flag, as though Barbados had conquered this fruit for beach bums everywhere. Each bite tastes like a tropical romp in a hammock, and suddenly I’m noticing the chopsticks, wrapped in napkins and standing straight up at each table setting, which reminds me of the Washington Monument, the Foshay Tower, and ancient obelisks. Did anyone ever ask women whether they wanted these giant phallic symbols erected in public, I wonder aloud. “No one asked women a lot of things,” my girlfriend says. I ask her if she’s feeling anything. Nope.

Photo by Terry Brennan

For dessert, we try chocolate fondue at Barbette, the cozy Uptown bistro that may be the best casual date spot in Minneapolis, if only because its perfectly warm lighting could make even Dick Cheney look like a softie. From the dark booths to the chocolate served to us in a mug, everything here seems to be melting—including my girlfriend. She confesses that dipping strawberries, apple and banana slices, plus bits of a lemon-ginger scone, in chocolate, is having an effect. The fondue, a virtual cocktail of serotonin stimulators and phenylethylamine (the supposed “love chemical” that peaks in the body during orgasm), is bringing her over to the “hot side.” Evidence shows that the phenylethylamine in chocolate is unfortunately metabolized before it ever reaches the brain, but no matter, we’re being drawn together—even as we notice the couple beside us falling apart. Eventually they leave, but not together; the woman is in tears. We can’t help wondering if a little warm chocolate might have helped.

On another freezing night, we test that most clichéd of aphrodisiacs: raw oysters. There’s nothing romantic about devouring the squishy cold blobs. And it’s only sexual if you think like ancient frat boys, who apparently thought that slurping flesh from shells was rather like getting up close and personal with, let’s say, Georgia O’Keeffe’s flower paintings. There’s a macho vibe at the oyster bar in the Oceanaire, the area’s premiere seafood establishment, which flies in a dozen oyster varieties daily to the Hyatt Regency hotel in downtown Minneapolis and displays this challenge, attributed to Jonathan Swift, on a wall: “He was a bold man who first swallowed an oyster.” Many of the male servers sport mustaches and talk to diners about oysters the way baseball coaches soothe rattled pitchers: with a firm hand on the shoulder and a go-get-’em attitude. “Tear it up!” our waiter tells us as he brings over a dozen mollusks, mostly the East Coast variety, which are generally more firm and briny than the fishy-tasting West Coast kinds. And so I tear in, even as my girlfriend, who’s attired in a cute sweater covered in tiny hearts, wonders what’s in it for her.

Photo by Terry Brennan

Perhaps to get her in the spirit, our server offers her a Flirtini, a martini made from pineapple juice, vodka, and champagne. Instead, she orders a cognac cocktail that could’ve curled the man’s mustache. She hasn’t touched the oysters. Then we notice a couple at the other end of the oyster bar, celebrating their minutes-ago engagement; within the hour, the man’s shirt is halfway unbuttoned. The waiter tells us he once saw a woman come in alone, devour three dozen oysters, and jump all over the stranger beside her. I look at my own shirt, tightly fastened, and wonder how many slimy goobers it might take to change that. My money is on the cognac.

Tim Gihring is the senior writer for Minnesota Monthly.

Ginger Asian Bistro, 4924 France Ave. S., Edina, 952-746-1988
Barbette, 1600 W. Lake St., Mpls., 612-827-5710
Oceanaire, 1300 Nicollet Ave., Mpls., 612-333-2277