'Off the Menu'
What has your experience been and opinions of meals that are ordered 'off the menu?'
Where have you done this? What was the dish? How did you find out of the dishes existence?
what does "off the menu" mean to you? specials? house dishes that only regulars know about? letting the chef cook you a 3-5-7-9+ course dinner at his whim?
I get "off the menu" stuff all the time at Chinese restaurants.
Usually, just ask the server or owner.
I often order off the menu, esp. in restaurants that are meat-centric - I'll ask them to make me a simple vegetarian dish, or to turn this sandwich into a salad (or vice versa). At a Chinese place near my house, I've asked them to turn the pepper-salt chicken into pepper-salt tofu.
Some times, if I go to a restaurant a lot, I'll order something I know they make but don't advertise. One neighborhood restaurant has an unlisted dessert - mango empanadas serve with ice cream - that trumps every other dessert on the menu.
And yes, I always tip well to make up for the extra effort. ;-)
Some restaurants will say on the menu that they will prepare any dish upon request if they have the ingredients and time. When I was younger my favorite italian restaurant in Chester NJ did this. I would have them make me a simple white fish with a white wine, caper, and artichoke sauce.
In my experience off-the-menu meals are usually pretty good - I'm fond of chinese and indian food, and am a regular at a couple of local restaurants where the waitstaff/kitchen know that I am interested in more authentic/interesting food then is offered on the menu. It's a relationship that's just sort of evolved, as I am a "chatty" diner (though I try to be polite, and not get chatty if things are busy), and like to talk about the food and how it's made/other ways I've made it/had it/heard about being made.
The best off-the-menu experience I ever had was at the Panda Garden - a hokey little chinese-american place we eat at a lot. It's been in business for ever, and we actually have family connection to it, though the current owners don't know about it - my husbands grandmother was a waitress there when they first opened back in 70's. We're pretty well known to the kitchen and the waitfolks there, and one day the waitress popped out of the kitchen with a bowl of pickled cucumbers and chilies. They were amazingly fresh and crisp and sharp and very slightly sweet. One of the guys in the kitchen had brought in a ton of cucumbers from his garden to give to the other people who worked at the restaurant, and they'd made up a batch of this pickle for their lunches, and though we might like to try it! It was delicious.
Engaging the staff in conversation is a good way to find dishes not on the menu.
As is being a regular. Sometimes things get taken off the menu. The one dish I really like that hasn't been on the menu of an Italian joint for decades is zucchini rialto ... fresh zuke, mushrooms & tomatoes in a cheesy wine sauce. Love that dish and always know to ask.
Sometimes paying attention to what others are ordering or asking about something you don't see on the menu but is on another table.
Maybe not 'off the menu', but I highly recommend scrutizing menus for that odd dish that might not be served elsewhere. That dish you've never heard of.
Of course, reading Chowhound helps for learning about 'off-the-menu' dishes.