Once upon a time, you had to be a real restaurant regular to know about unlisted house specialties.
But in recent years the “secret dish” has become a not-very-stealthy marketing tool - usually for casual restaurants serving ridiculous toppings in or on pizza, burgers, and sandwiches (California fast food fave In-N-Out Burger has a whole underground menu to learn). You know the phenomenon has hit a critical mass when you see dedicated websites and apps popping up.
Fine-dining establishments, however, rarely appear on their lists. Below, we’ve unearthed nine high-end dishes prepared by some of the world’s most respected chefs that you have to know to ask for. Welcome to the club.
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Risotto alla Milanese — Casa Lever, New York
Though there's always a daily risotto—peas and mint; tomatoes, olive oil and basil; pesto and burrata; cacio e pepe—on the menu at the neo-Milanese destination in Midtown's celebrated Lever House skyscraper, regulars know to ask for the Risotto alla Milanese ($30), which made its official appearance only when it opened in 2009. Since then, under the watchful eye of the largest private collection of Andy Warhol works, it has continued to evolve. The dish is creamier than ever now that chef Alessandro Caporale mixes butter directly with the saffron before melting in 36-month old Parmigiano Reggiano.
Meatballs Vergara-style — Fiola, Washington
Making meatballs matter at a fine-dining restaurant is no easy feat. At Fiola, chef Fabio Trabocchi combines beef, veal, and pork with breadcrumbs, cream, eggs, garlic confit, and two types of cheeses—Grana Padano and Pecorino—to produce his Meatballs Vergara-style ($9 for 6 meatballs; otherwise offered only at his more casual Casa Luca). No, the name has nothing to do with Sofia; it is colloquial Italian for “mama.”
Foie Gras Brûlée — Boka, Chicago
As if foie gras weren’t rich enough, Michelin-starred chef Lee Wolen of Boka transforms the ingredient into what sounds like a dessert: He adds brandy and brûlées the sugar right in front of your eyes. It’s actually a savory dish. The tableside drama is available only as part of the tasting menu (seven courses for $115), which changes daily, so be sure to ask ahead for it.
Kama Collar — Craigie on Main, Boston
Seafood specials pop up frequently on chef Tony Maws’ French-inspired menus, but none is more tender and rare than the succulent meat inside the collar of the kama (hamachi/yellowtail). This fatty part of the fish is marinated, then braised in a spice rub of New Mexican red chile and sesame, and finally broiled to achieve perfectly charred skin. Some regulars ask for it every time they visit ($14 to $18, depending on size and availability); it’s otherwise a dish that appears from time to time on the eight-course tasting menu. Maws says to use your hands when eating it.
Foie Gras Shashlik — Zahav, Philadelphia
James Beard Award-winning chef Michael Solomonov is always experimenting with Israeli small-plate dishes, and this one is full of flavors you don’t often get in one mouthful. It’s essentially a skewer (shashlik) of foie gras served over freshly baked laffa (imagine pita bread squished out into a wrap-like shape), and then drizzled with carob molasses, Sicilian pistachios, and black salt. Sometimes it’s served as a complimentary dish, but hardcore fans can ask for it à la carte ($20).
Cuttlefish ‘Tagliatelle’ — Acquerello, San Francisco
When guests at this modern Italian restaurant in Nob Hill started asking for gluten- and dairy-free dishes, chef Suzette Gresham responded with the ingenious Cuttlefish Tagliatelle. Instead of using pasta, she creates her own noodles made of fish, cooked sous-vide, and flattened into strips that are then tossed with capers, olive oil, chili peppers, lobster, and agretti (a green herb that has a delicate mineral taste). The dish migrated off the regular menu to make room for newer dishes, but fans still order it all the time. (Available as part of any prix-fixe menu; three courses for $95, four courses for $120, five courses for $140).
Nose-to-Tail Hampshire Rabbit — Stovell’s, Chobham (near London)
Fernando and Kristy Stovell, the husband-and-wife team at this 16th-century Tudor farmhouse restaurant an hour's drive southwest of London, serve sustainably sourced local dishes with one-word names like “Duck,” “Beef,” “Quail” and so on. Diners in the know can get the “Rabbit” with fermented turnips, pistachio, yarrow, and nettles (£30/$44), but only if you use the secret phrase. Tell the waiter: “I can hypnotize rabbits.” Seriously.
Pigeon de Bresse — Epicure at Le Bristol Paris
Like many chefs, triple Michelin-starred Eric Frechon changes his menus every few months to feature what’s freshest. When it’s hunting season in the fall, guests can inquire about fresh game catch. If they’re lucky, they get to feast on reinventions of wild-game classics such as Pigeon de Bresse; Bresse is a region renowned for its poultry (€89/$100). The bird is glazed with spicy honey and pine nuts crumble, and plated with compotée of fennel and onion with cumin.
Tuna Cones — Spago Beverly Hills, Calif.
The tuna cone is not only a Wolfgang Puck signature dish, it's a Hollywood crowd-pleaser, having been served the Oscars' Governor’s Ball last year. The dish ($24) is always available at Puck's two-Michelin star flagship despite it no longer being on the menu any more. It features three sesame-miso cones filled with spicy tuna tartare and garnished with daikon sprouts, bonito flakes, and masago roe.
News by Bloomberg, edited by Hospitality Ireland