Sometimes the best things a restaurant has to offer aren't on the menu. Instead, they reside in the chef's imagination. These dishes may be too arcane to find a place on the permanent lineup; they may call for ingredients that are not consistently available; they may be dishes the chef doesn't think his customers will like. But they can be summoned with a simple request: "Chef, would you cook something special for me?"
"Something special" can mean one portion of pasta or a multicourse meal for eight. And while some restaurants would prefer if you didn't stray from the bill of fare, many are happy to accommodate special requests, because it gives their chefs a chance to shine. Going "off menu" also serves to strengthen the bond between diner and restaurateur as the two of you conspire to create a meal that may never have been served before.
Offering a daily "chef's tasting" menu is becoming increasingly common at ambitious Long Island restaurants. A couple of them - Maroni Cuisine in Northport, Café Mosaic in St. James - dispense with menus altogether: Every night is off the menu. But plenty of promising places are hidden in plain sight. Here are some to get you started:
Luigi Q, 400 S. Oyster Bay Rd., Hicksville, 516-932-7450
"Most of our regular customers, they never look at the menu," says Luigi Q's proprietor, Luigi Quarta. "And the more often people come, the more I get to know what they like." The off-the-menu selections at the Hicksville Italian restaurant fall into two general categories: fancy and homey. Among the fancy: escargot with Gorgonzola polenta and truffle oil, Scottish salmon wrought into a rose around a lump of Alaskan crab drizzled with pink "Marie Rose" sauce. More often than not, the homey specials recall Quarta's own childhood in Italy and tend to revolve around game and organ meats: roasted goat, rabbit cacciatore, wild boar rib chops, venison meatballs, Roman-style tripe, Piedmont-style braised kidneys.
Quarta is extremely flexible. You can call him a few days in advance to plan a bang-up banquet, or you can just wander in and see what chef Pastor Alfaro can whip up on the fly. Always available - and highly recommended - pasta carbonara with cabbage and parsley. For a three-course meal, count on spending at least $45 a person for food.
Hunan Taste, 3 Northern Blvd., Greenvale, 516-621-6616, hunantasterestaurant.com
Beneath the mercantile breast of many a Chinese restaurant owner beats the heart of someone who wants to wow customers with native dishes. And because the banqueting tradition is so strong in Chinese culture, most Chinese restaurants can serve a lavish meal to a dozen people without breaking a sweat.
At Hunan Taste, a banquet might start with a Lazy Susan boasting braised ducks' feet, jellyfish salad, little fried packets of tofu stuffed with shrimp, fresh bamboo shoots, flash fried and dusted with seaweed. Then Peking duck, snow pea leaves and Chinese celery in broth, loofah with dried scallops, rice cake with bamboo shoots, Chinese sausage and shrimp.
Calvin Hu, one of Hunan Taste's owners, says customers sometimes spy what the Chinese staff eats for dinner and ask, "Could I have some of that?" A modest off-the-menu meal at Hunan Taste starts at $40 a person for food only, and a banquet can go much higher.
21 Main, 21 Montauk Hwy., West Sayville, 631-567-0900, 21main.com
Although 21 Main identifies itself as a steak house, chefs James Cavorti III and John Menz like nothing better than to cook way outside the beef box. Their kitchen is one of a very few on Long Island that experiments with "molecular gastronomy." A recent tasting menu featured, among other items, raw oysters paired with spinach-and-Grana Padano foam and Sambuca caviar; tobacco cream with brandy gel and applewood bacon clouds, Kobe beef with rhubarb ribbons, litchi-vanilla bean balls and sassafras foam.
Menz says he and Cavorti love to stretch themselves. "We even love to cook for vegans," he said. One such customer, the wife of a steak-loving regular, was recently treated to a four-course menu based around her favorite food: cucumbers.
For four courses, count on spending between $50 and $60 a person for food.
GET CREATIVE WITH THE CHEF
Plan your visit The chef may need some time to think about your meal and to obtain the special ingredients he/she needs to make it, so call the restaurant a few days before you intend to dine.
Be clear about the price Whether you request one special dish or an entire meal, discuss the price beforehand.
Be flexible Going "off menu" is not the same as micromanaging the chef. While it's perfectly acceptable to state parameters - e.g. no meat, nothing spicy - you're defeating the point if you tell the chef exactly what and how you want him/her to cook.
Invite like-minded guests Your picky friends are not welcome here. Invite adventurous diners who treasure new culinary experiences.
OFF THE JAPANESE MENU
At virtually every Japanese restaurant, you can order the "omakase" menu, in which you entrust your meal to the whims and talents of the sushi chef, and to the freshest fish of the day.
When you sit at the sushi bar, omakase offers the additional pleasure of watching your meal being created. It may take a little prodding - if not a few visits - to convince the chef you want to go beyond California and spicy-tuna rolls, but it's worth the effort.
One night not long ago, I witnessed a stream of delicacies delivered to a lone patron. Behind the sushi bar was Taka Yamaguchi, the sushi-chef-owner of Taka in Westbury. First came a plate of sweet shrimp, the tails raw, the heads deep fried. Then octopus simmered in mirin. Then a plate of pristine nigiri sushi of salmon belly, tuna belly, yellowtail, fluke.
Taka is at 821 Carman Ave., Westbury, 516-876-0033. Other good venues for omakase sushi include Mumon (1300 Franklin Ave., Garden City, 516-747-3388, mumonrestaurant.com), Yamaguchi (63 Main St., Port Washington, 516-883-3500), Domo Sushi Japanese Restaurant (180 Route 25A, East Setauket 631-751-2299), Blue Fish (828 S. Oyster Bay Rd., Hicksville, 516-605-0655), and Takara (1708 Veterans Hwy., Islandia, 631-348-9470).