Sometimes, the most exciting dishes at a restaurant are not listed on the menu.
Eating at a restaurant is much more than just about the food. People go to restaurants to feel like they’re being taken care of, the giddy experience that validates you are special. Whether at a fine-dining establishment, or a street-cart, there is something deliciously indulgent in knowing that the entire machinery of kitchen and wait staff, tables and décor, have all been orchestrated for you – the diner. And then, to order something that’s not on the menu? That makes you an insider.
Very often, the most exciting items at a restaurant are in fact, not listed on the menu. They are dishes that have been taken off the menu but can still be prepared on request. Or dishes that were never on the menu at all, but are sent out to regulars when the restaurant is working on something new, or when the staff meal features something unique – or simply as thanks for their continued patronage. If you know where to go, or whom to go with, secret culinary repertoires inaccessible to most, will be unlocked.
As long-time residents of Bangalore, we’ve occasionally caught wind of ‘authentic’ meals of French beans and pork, at an iconic old Chinese restaurant in the heart of the city; we've heard rumours that the old coffee shop on MG Road serves a ‘special’ mushroom fry that is entirely too good to be left to the vegetarians, and a kheema on toast variation available to long-time patrons who know what to ask for.
When we speak to Gautam John, non-practicing lawyer and practicing gourmand, he is naturally reluctant to share these secrets. “Most people don't want specials or off-menu things,” he says, not convincing us at all. But he throws us a bone: “If the chef at Memories of China is in the house, ask for his special beef with potatoes. It isn’t on the menu but it’s 100 per cent worth planning your visit around.”
Anirban Blah who heads a celebrity management agency in Mumbai, recommends a duck curry at The Bombay Canteen, in which chef Thomas Zacharias plays on a traditional Kerala roast duck, based on his grandmother’s recipe, served with red rice. “I always ask the restaurant to cook me a special meal, and this was an extraordinary dish. The chef, who trained at the CIA, employs his training and technique in cooking the duck here, while retaining all the comfort and familiarity of a home-cooked meal. The meat was crisp on the outside, moist and juicy on the inside, and cuts beautifully. It is this combination of cutting edge technique in a soulful curry that, to my mind, makes him one of the most talented young chefs out there. “
Meanwhile, in Calicut, the culinary capital of Kerala, food photographer Saina Jayapal, is a regular at Zain’s, a Mappila restaurant owned by a woman, and run by a kitchen staffed entirely by women. Like many local restaurants in Kerala, this one doesn’t have a menu. Instead, waiters rattle off the catch of the day at your table, or you can peek into the glass cabinet up front and choose your meal. Buried under larger and more glamorous fish, the discerning diner can occasionally find fish roe. “There’s nothing like sardine roe in season. Cooked with a bit of salt, turmeric and chilli, it bursts in your mouth with all the delicious saltiness of the sea, which sometimes is lost in fish. The unusual thing about this dish is that most restaurants don’t carry it – it’s a very home-style dish. Families buy sardine for the day and if there happens to be roe inside – jackpot! At Zain’s I always ask what’s available, hoping it will be my lucky day. And pair it with some ari-pathiri, as delicate and light as a handkerchief.”
Kaveri Ponnapa, author and expert on Kodava cuisine who eats at The Fatty Bao in Bangalore, returns frequently for a preparation of mackerel that isn't on the menu. The chef, Prashanth Puttaswamy, knowing his guest’s weakness for mackerel and predilection for puff pastry, put the two together as a surprise one evening. “Still waters run deep – that’s Prashanth Puttaswamy and the way he cooks. He’s very quiet and understated, and this extremely simple dish is what one could expect from him, based essentially on two small filets of mackerel. The filling is made of very lightly poached mackerel mixed with sardines, to bring in some additional texture, the merest touch of roasted garlic –and not much else. It is a dense, flavour-intense succulent mass, encased in very crisp, light, pastry. Perched atop the pastry is the remaining filet, pan seared to give it a bit of crunch, and finished in the oven. You would expect it to be a bit too oily, given the nature of mackerel and the pastry itself, but it is light and simple – the richness of it, the flavour, it satisfies so many desires.”
In Pune, Ann Joseph and her husband Eugenio are regulars at a Korean restaurant Maroo. Their visible enjoyment of the restaurant’s meat dishes led the management to recommend a pork tangsuyuk, a dish normally only reserved for their Korean patrons. Sweet, sour, crispy pork served in a broth with all kinds of fruits and vegetables including cucumber, pineapples, apples carrots and mushrooms.
In Chennai, journalist Geeta Doctor, describes a Guava sorbet at Shiraz Art Café as an ice-goli with style. “Sorbets are the taste of bliss in summer. On hot afternoons, there's nothing like spooning the delicately pink Guava Sorbet that Nasrin Karimi, the Iranian owner, serves in tall tulip shaped glasses. The pale pink ice-crystals are still firm. The flavour of the crushed Guava pulp lingers on the tongue. As you dip your long spoon into the mush you discover something strange floating inside, these are the swollen "Subja" (Holy Basil) seeds that Karimi includes in her sorbet. There's sugar syrup of course. This she says is what allows the mixture to cool easily in the freezer.”
Laila Vaziralli who runs the Village Studio In Goa finds that although the state's restaurant culture caters primarily to the tourists, the locals know where to find the real deal. “There’s a hearty beef stew at Ciao Bella, and a fish thali in Parra, at Catherine’s Corner – two of favourites. Neither place has menus to speak of. And for afternoon snacks, there’s incredible beef samosas at a community outfit called St Xaviers, run by the Parra panchayat women.”
Mangalore’s Shetty Lunch Home is iconic as the original lunch home, the creator of the ghee roast and other dishes that are now found on every coastal restaurant menu in the country. But even here, regulars have a distinct advantage. One serendipitous discovery on Zomato led to a delicious off-menu find: biryani ghee rice that is mixed through with their very excellent ghee roast, is spicy and delicious.
In Hyderabad, Jonty Rajagopalan who curates culinary tours of the old city, stops at the iconic Shadaab for kaddu ka dalcha, baghara rice and shikampur kebabs on Fridays. “These were originally cooked as refreshments after Friday prayers, but now they’re so sought after, they are usually always over before prayers even begin – and there’s no menu to speak of, really.” The Shikampur kebab is sour and tangy, filled with hung curd, onion, chilli and coriander. Fried with spices and curry leaves, the bagara rice is a simple stir-fry with sona masuri, but deeply beloved, eaten with succulent pieces of mutton cooked in a tamarind and tuvar dal gravy, not unlike sambar.
While these dishes are undeniably delicious, it has to be said that nothing is as mouthwatering as a secret – what really makes off-the-menu dishes special, whether the open-secret Spaghetti alla Primavera at a Le Cirque, or that boiled egg riff on charmuri at your local chaat place, it is that feeling of belonging to an exclusive club that captivates diners' imaginations.
Do you have a favourite off-the-menu item that we've missed? Leave us a comment below!
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