There’s another way to feel like a restaurant VIP than ordering the most expensive wine and dishes with the highest percentage of caviar or truffles—ordering off menu. Not entirely off menu, mind you; that's an expert-level discussion for another day. (To wit, at Marea, the power restaurant on Central Park South, when everyone else was ordering pricey seafood, Anna Wintour was reportedly getting the chicken breast: She was, allegedly, the only person the restaurant prepared it for.)
A few months ago, we created a list of top places with stellar secret dishes. Here are 10 more that are always available if you know to ask the chef.
Commander’s Palace, New Orleans
Dish: Fried eggplant sticks
New Orleans is famed for many things. Eggplant sticks is not one of them. Yet it’s a little-known New Orleans classic that can be found on some old-school menus around the city. The surprisingly addictive dish consists of breaded and fried eggplant batons, topped with a dusting of powdered sugar. They haven’t been on the menu at Commander’s Palace for at least 25 years, but longtime regular customers still ask for them and chef Tory McPhail will always accommodate.
Emily, New York
Dish: The Puma Burger
At this breakout Brooklyn pizza place, not far from BAM in Fort Greene, the standard burger is even more famous than the pies. Bathed in butter-spiked Korean chile sauce and topped with Grafton Cheddar, it’s sensational and not easy to get, made only in limited quantities each night. Even harder to score is the one not on the menu: the Puma burger, which is available only when chef/owner Matt Hyland is in the kitchen. Created for Mike Puma, founder of the elite Gotham Burger Social Club, the dish features a hefty Fleisher's 30-day dry-aged beef patty on a pretzel bun with hot sauce, blue cheese, and lettuce.
Smyth + The Loyalist, ChicagoDish: Hot Sauce and Chicken Mousse-Glazed Fried Chicken
This highly anticipated new restaurant from the talented chef team John and Karen Shields has two parts. Smyth is the more ambitious tasting-menu dining room with such selections as Dungeness crab with foie gras and scrambled miso. The Loyalist is the more casual food-and-drink place where dishes tend toward BBQ pork shoulder. There, John Shields is serving an off-the-menu favorite of his: fried chicken glazed with hot sauce and chicken liver mousse. It’s a mashup of a couple of dishes on the menu, crispy chicken thighs and chicken liver mousse toast. Only guests who know Shields or someone in the kitchen know to order this (so far).
Lilia, New YorkDish: Vanilla Soft-Serve Gelato with Shaved Truffles
One of the year’s hottest new restaurants is Lilia, a warehouse-styled space on a corner near a park in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Missy Robbins serves a vast array of Italian dishes, from a whole artichoke stuffed with garlic, parmesan, and mint to outstanding grilled clams with Calabrian chiles and a tender, juicy Roman-spiced lamb leg steak. Her dessert menu is much shorter and features soft-serve ice gelato with mix-and-match toppings like a beloved ice cream place. The one that’s not on the menu is the most insane: vanilla gelato with honey, sea salt, and shaved white truffles. Get it while truffle season is still in effect.
Knead Pasta Bar + Market, Los Angeles
Dish: Bucatini Cacio e Pepe with a Fried Egg
At the perennially crowded Grand Central Market in downtown L.A., chef Bruce Kalman runs the Knead Pasta Bar. There are a few starters and sandwiches, but per the name, order pasta. There’s a delectable spaghetti and meatballs with Sunday gravy and baked fontina, mozzarella, and goat cheese macaroni and cheese. One dish Kalman has kept off the menu, but will make on request, is a fried egg-topped bucatini cacio e pepe. This happily simple dish is a mix of housemade semolina pasta with plenty of butter, Pecorino, and freshly ground pepper, topped with a pretty runny yolk fried egg.
Gotham Bar & Grill, New York
Dish: Apple Tart Tatin
Some places aren't content to have one secret specialty. The venerable downtown restaurant Gotham has a not-so-secret burger on its menu at lunch that's also unofficially available in the evening. Topped with bacon, cheddar, and herb aioli, served with crispy fries, it's worth asking for. But it also has a superb secret dessert during the fall: a gorgeous tart tatin. Made from heirloom apples that are baked under their pastry crust until golden and caramel coated, the tart is presented whole and "carved" tableside.
Spoon & Stable, Minneapolis
Dish: Saturday Night Ramen
Chef Gavin Kaysen was a star at New York’s Café Boulud before returning to his hometown of Minneapolis to open this superb farmhouse restaurant with such dishes as grilled venison with chestnut crispy grains. The menu features Midwestern ingredients, but on Saturday nights he offers an unlikely off-the menu special: ramen. The ingredients vary each week. Recently, it was a shio (or salt broth-based) ramen with lobster dashi, BBQ hamachi collar, shitake mushrooms, and Napa cabbage. For Kaysen, it’s a winning strategy. It’s different than anything on the S&S menu and a way for his culinary team to experiment. It also sells out every Saturday night.
Sessanta, New York
Dish: Spaghetti with Veal Meatballs
Set in a SoHo hotel, the clubby Sessanta has a menu overseen by Bowery Meat Company’s Josh Capon that’s dedicated to the food of Southern Italy. It celebrates Red Sauce Sunday nights and has a menu that includes tender eggplant parmesan and well-charred chile and lemon chicken. But an off-the-menu dish personifies the spirit of the place, and that’s spaghetti and veal meatballs. The tender meatballs, flavored with lemon and thyme in tomato sauce, are on the menu anyway as a starter; they're extra special when they're served with a bowl of spaghetti.
Patina Restaurant, Los AngelesDish: Tuna Tower
When Patina restaurant opened at the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall in 2003, chef Joachim Splichal put a tuna tower on his elegant French-American menu. The high-rising stack of thin slices of tuna, with avocado, oven-roasted tomato, and soy-caramelized onions was a big hit. But things change; at some point, the dish fell off. Customers can still ask for it, though, and chef Paul Lee will still serve it to them. Says Lee in an e-mail, “It’s a very simple and elegant dish, with classic Japanese flavors. I’m not surprised that guests are nostalgic for it.”
Sushi Roku, Las Vegas
Dish: High-Roller Roll
Some off-the-menu dishes are relatively secret; others are not. For eight years, the Vegas branch of the West Coast chain Sushi Roku has offered the High Roller roll to anyone who knows about it and is willing to shell out $250—some high-roller tables will be offered it as a verbal special by the server. The outrageous roll is filled with just about every extravagant ingredient you can think of: lobster tail, Wagyu Kobe beef, tuna, Osetra golden caviar, and truffle oil, and it’s decorated with edible gold leaf, so it looks fancy, too.
News by Bloomberg, edited by Hospitality Ireland