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Off the Menu at 15 Restaurants


Jinmyo
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The Wall Street Journal (sorry no link because it's $79 a year to subscribe) has an interesting article on a topic often raised on the boards: ordering off the menu.

Here are a few points from (a zamisdat version of) the article. Diners Go Beyond the Menu, And Most Chefs Don't Mind by Pooja Bhatia and Shirley Leung.

Expense-account dining is down an estimated 20% since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the U.S., according to Morgan Keegan Research.

The restaurant industry is in deep recession and so seem more than willing to allow customers order off the menu.

But what happens when you challenge the chef? To find out, we visited 15 hot spots across the country and asked our waiter if the chef could prepare something special, just for us.

The authors found that twelve out of the fifteen restaurants were more than accomodating. The fifteen are:

Smith & Wollensky, Chicago

Barolo, Denver

Commander's Palace, New Orleans

The Dining Room, Ritz-Carlton, Buckhead, Atlanta (Request refused by chef)

De La Tierra, Delray Beach, Fla.

Emeril's, New Orleans

Sun Dial Restaurant, Westin Peachtree Plaza Hotel, Atlanta

Gramercy Tavern, New York (Request refused by waiter)

Mansion on Turtle Creek, Dallas

Le Bec-Fin, Philadelphia

Morimoto, Philadelphia.(supposed off menu item was on the menu)

Napa Rose, Anaheim, Calif.

Spago, Beverly Hills

Bin 36, Chicago

Thyme, Chicago

Of special interest to us, since Danny Meyer so recently did a Q&A for us, is what happened at Gramercy Tavern:

Our waiter was stone-deaf to our challenge to serve us something special. "Have you heard of our restaurant?" he asked, squinting. After seven minutes of tussling -- we rephrased our request graciously and got six different excuses. Could he just ask the chef? No luck, so we settled for a $68 prix fixe dinner of beet salad and salt-baked salmon. Says an apologetic Mr. Meyer, "that's so far from what we're aiming for."

The best tip in the article: Try busy nights, when the kitchen is well-stocked and the line guys are too in the weeds to care.

"I've caught you Richardson, stuffing spit-backs in your vile maw. 'Let tomorrow's omelets go empty,' is that your fucking attitude?" -E. B. Farnum

"Behold, I teach you the ubermunch. The ubermunch is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the ubermunch shall be the meaning of the earth!" -Fritzy N.

"It's okay to like celery more than yogurt, but it's not okay to think that batter is yogurt."

Serving fine and fresh gratuitous comments since Oct 5 2001, 09:53 PM

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I'm surprised at what happened at GT, although it seems from various reports that servers are not as uniformly enthusiastic and accommodating as some of us have known them to be in the past.

All the same, interesting that so many of the places were willing to go along.

Who said "There are no three star restaurants, only three star meals"?

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But what happens when you challenge the chef? To find out, we visited 15 hot spots across the country and asked our waiter if the chef could prepare something special, just for us.

Phrased that way it's a naive request, one you'd expect from someone who doesn't dine out often at fine restaurants but wants to impress his/her date. As the Church Lady would opine, "My aren't we special." Be curious to learn what the cooperating chef's actually prepared as "something special just for us." Last night's special, perhaps?

A much more reasonable approach would be to request a favorite dish that's not on the menu but that the menu or the cuisine indicates is probably possible or, perhaps, a dish for which the chef is noted.

Edited by Holly Moore (log)

Holly Moore

"I eat, therefore I am."

HollyEats.Com

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To follow up Elyse, I personally never thought of ordering off the menu and didn't realize that some people actually do that (thought that may be the result of a limited imagination), though I don't know if that means substituting a side dish or something more substantial, like an entree.

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I suspect it's possible to make the request in a manner that suggests you are a spoiled brat with a self assumed sense of entitlement or in a way that suggests you are a knowledgeable connoisseur familiar with the chef's food. I don't know a good many of those restaurants, but from those I know as well as the fact that they've made their request at one's that are not chef driven, I wonder if the came off as more clueless than knowledgeable.

In fact I'm surprised so many restaurants were prepared to cater to them. I would classify Steve P as a knowledgeable connoisseur and Babbo as a chef driven restaurant and yet look at how Steve's request there was treated.

-

Whoops, I see Holly's already said as much while I was away from my desk.

Edited by Bux (log)

Robert Buxbaum

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Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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I was somewhat torn regarding how to react to the Gramercy Tavern report.

On the one hand, it underscores the inherent unfairness of this particular process. It's unfair in at least two major ways: 1) It places the entire restaurant's "score" in the hands of one server. In this case, it doesn't even seem as though the reporters asked to speak to a manager, which in all fairness given the undercover investigative reporting situation they should have done. (Whether reports of this nature are even ethical is another question altogether; I'm not sure what "public interest" was served here in order to justify the undercover investigation.) 2) It's quite difficult to know how the journalists acted, what they said exactly, and what the tone of the interaction was. Although Danny Meyer was quoted, nobody seems to have asked the waiter for his side of the story. There are a lot of minor problems too, including the naivete referenced above.

On the other hand, even a great institution like Gramercy Tavern can use a wakeup call every once in awhile. This is management's chance to make sure there's a policy in place to handle requests like this. If there are, for example, sous-chefs in the kitchen who aren't willing to accommodate waiters who relay such requests, those people need to be taught about improvisational cooking. If it's just a question of lazy waiters, they need to be taught or dismissed.

Knowing Danny Meyer, corrective action is already afoot..

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I think it's also a function of lazy servers. The basic problem I had at Babbo is that the waitress assumed I didn't know what I was doing. Same with the sommelier. And they didn't want to invest the time to figure out that I might be a knowledgable diner. They just wanted to plow through my service as if I was one of the dozens of anonymous diners that would pass through that night. Anything else they weren't really interested in because it meant having to do extra work. And even if they went to speak to a manager, they they would probably communicate that I was a troublemaker giving them a hard time.

When I was at Morimoto over the holidays. I started inquiring of our waitress what they might have or be able to prepare that was soy sauce/wheat free. As I began asking her about individual dishes, I could see a look of panic come over her. It was semi-torturous as I would ask her about a dish, she would say no it has soy sauce and she would leave. I even saw her speak to a manager and indicate she was having a hard time with our table. I kept asking her about various dishes and she kept saying no. It was really excruciating and I was getting very unhappy because there wasn't much to eat. Finally she went to speak to the manager a second time. A few minutes later he came to the table and he told us he spoke to the chef and he spit out an entire list of dishes that were without soy sauce, or which they were willing to prepare especially for me. All of a sudden we were all in love when a few minutes earlier we were all grouchy. It is really that easy if someone actually cares about you as a diner.

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It is really that easy if someone actually cares about you as a diner.

So it would seem as if it's a matter of getting the server to care about you, and the degree to which he or she is amenable to doing so at any given moment. This probably has as much to do with his or her relationship with the kitchen as it does with the customer.

Is there any other strategy that might result in some attention beyond pro forma from the server and from the kitchen? Being a regular is an obvious advantage. What about the less frequent diner?

Who said "There are no three star restaurants, only three star meals"?

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Throwing something at the server usually gets their attention.

I just think it's the way certain servers are wired. Like any other job, certain people look to do the best job, and certain people look to get by without getting into trouble. An ambitious server, who would like to make a name for themselves with the powers that be, will go to a manager or the chef and say, I can sell the following if you guys can do it. Of course, you have to work in the right type of place. Let's call it a progressive kitchen. But if you have ever worked in sales you know, the sky is the limit in the right type of environment. But I will say something controversial as well and say that any place that is so rigid that they can't accomodate that type of special request, is likely to have food that sort of tastes homogenized.

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The problem is that given the tipping system and the general structure of the employment relationship, servers don't really work for anyone. They're more like brokers. It's not surprising that so many of them want to follow the path of least resistance, because chances are the few dollars extra they might make (after tip-pool dilution) from providing a table with a stellar experience won't be worth the energy expended, particularly the exposure to the wrath of a Napoleonic sous-chef/expediter-type who hasn't got a clue about fine dining or customer service. So really the best tool in your toolkit is if you can provide the server with some sort of pleasurable personal interaction and emotional reward. If the server really cares about food, it's pretty easy -- your foodie-ness is going to come through and there will be a connection. If the server couldn't care less about food, you have to figure out another way to make a connection -- usually there's a way, though not always. That's when you ask to speak to the manager. A manager is likely to be a real representative of the restaurant, not just a broker.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Phrased that way it's a naive request, one you'd expect from someone who doesn't dine out often at fine restaurants but wants to impress his/her date. As the Church Lady would opine, "My aren't we special." Be curious to learn what the cooperating chef's actually prepared as "something special just for us." Last night's special, perhaps?

I sincerely doubt the question was posed as such.

As a child, we rarely ate at home. My father often asked for things off the menu, and he was usually accomodated. To him, it was the mark of a good restaurant. To a degree, I agree with him. He was not being a spoiled brat, he was paying for food he would enjoy, and his requests were not outlandish. Wait staff were usually the ones standing in the way of the request being filled. Some of the restaurants, if the ingredients were not on hand, would send someone to get them. At a restaurant I worked at in Providence, I would sometimes go on the same errand, and I was happy to do it. It meant that one more diner was able to enjoy his/her meal.

I see nothing wrong with it, as long as the request is made with respect.

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Elvse-

You omitted the rest of my posting

A much more reasonable approach would be to request a favorite dish that's not on the menu but that the menu or the cuisine indicates is probably possible or, perhaps, a dish for which the chef is noted.

Actually I think we are in agreement.

But the Journal article states the request to be an unspecific "something special for me."

Edited by Holly Moore (log)

Holly Moore

"I eat, therefore I am."

HollyEats.Com

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I think any place in LA with even a whisper of show biz clients makes stuff off the menu---it's a religion with most entertainment industry folks to get exactly what they want, no matter how strange.  It's sure no stretch for Spago.

I've been told by a relative in LA that the scene in "Get Shorty" with the Danny DeVito character placing his order at The Ivy (which he never eats anyway) is all true.

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I guess I'm missing something here. Why would you go to a restaurant and expect to get something not on the menu? I've occasionally asked for a minor substitution (plain mashed potatoes instead of scalloped potatoes with roquefort, for example, when the plain potatoes are on the menu elsewhere) but that's the only sort of thing it would occur to me to ask. I have been to restaurants where the menu changes and been disappointed to find something I'd previously liked was no longer available, but I never even thought to ask if I could have it anyway.

I can definitely understand special requests to accommodate allergies or other dietary requirments, but I think if those were substantial (e.g., vegan, wheat-free, etc.) I would call in advance to ask about possibilities and make arrangements.

Now it's true that I rarely, if ever, go out to high high-end restaurants, and if that's where this tends to occur, then maybe that's why this seems so strange to me.

I'm not being just a devil's advocate here; I truly don't understand this thread. Can someone enlighten me?

(I haven't read the WSJ article -- hopefully my sister still has the paper it appeared in, so I can catch up).

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At one place where I was a line cook, a guy used to come in regularly and ask for plain steamed salmon with plain steamed vegetables -- needless to say, not on the menu. Whoever was with him would always order regular menu items. We grumbled at first, but we did what he wanted. We stopped grumbling because he became a regular -- that was all that mattered. That, and the fact that he wasn't trying to play "creative chef" for himself and mess up OUR chef's food.

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Several years ago when I was on a lo-fat *and* lo-carb diet, I toured Wales and Western England with a small opera company. I ate alone at restaurants listed in the Good Food Guide (the rest of the company didn't want to spend the money) and I asked for meat or fish that was on the menu, but simply grilled, without the rich sauce, without the starch, and with extra helpings of vegetables. All of them (about 8 as I remember) cheerfully accommodated.

Of course this was a request for something simple, but it was nevertheless something different, which throws some minds into instant panic.

In Paris, I've had good response asking ahead for something I know isn't on the menu; for instance a seafood restaurant that used to offer bouillabaisse but no longer does.

John Whiting, London

Whitings Writings

Top Google/MSN hit for Paris Bistros

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Why would you go to a restaurant and expect to get something not on the menu?

Well let me ask an almost existential question. What is the real difference between on the menu and off the menu? Is it that someone wrote it down or sent it to the printer's? If they have the ingredients, and they know how to prepare it, is there a difference?

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There is in the kitchen. What's on the menu can be assembled in minutes, often by any one of several cooks. Off the menu can mean three or four times the work for the same miserable pay.

"I've caught you Richardson, stuffing spit-backs in your vile maw. 'Let tomorrow's omelets go empty,' is that your fucking attitude?" -E. B. Farnum

"Behold, I teach you the ubermunch. The ubermunch is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the ubermunch shall be the meaning of the earth!" -Fritzy N.

"It's okay to like celery more than yogurt, but it's not okay to think that batter is yogurt."

Serving fine and fresh gratuitous comments since Oct 5 2001, 09:53 PM

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What's on the menu can be assembled in minutes, often by any one of several cooks. Off the menu can mean three or four times the work for the same miserable pay.

Or three or four times less work.

How so? Assembly is just a matter of reaching out here and there, turning left or right, put, place. Off the menu means to the walk-in at least, scrounging for components.

"I've caught you Richardson, stuffing spit-backs in your vile maw. 'Let tomorrow's omelets go empty,' is that your fucking attitude?" -E. B. Farnum

"Behold, I teach you the ubermunch. The ubermunch is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the ubermunch shall be the meaning of the earth!" -Fritzy N.

"It's okay to like celery more than yogurt, but it's not okay to think that batter is yogurt."

Serving fine and fresh gratuitous comments since Oct 5 2001, 09:53 PM

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"Off the menu" will have different impact according to the off-menu dish ordered and the structure of the restaurant operation.

If there is sauteed halibut with lemon sauce etc on the menu, then an order for plain grilled halibut is simplicity itself for the kitchen, it will require no special skilled attention, and it will reduce the work involved in preparing the dish. If the roles of the dishes are reversed, then the off-menu order requires a cook who knows how to make the sauce and compose and cook the dish, and it creates additional work and management attention.

If the off-menu order is for a sauced steak dish, and there is neither steak nor that sauce on today's menu, then this raises the question of availability of ingredients, in addition to the time and attention to basic preparation of those ingredients.

For a high-end kitchen, some of these requests will be doable but are likely to cause organizational and management problems in the kitchen (however minor those might be). Some requests may not be doable at all, especially if the chef is concerned about being able at short notice to produce the quality level demanded by the restaurant.

There are also the front of house issues. The server who takes the order must understand clearly what is required by the customer, and unless the server has culinary knowledge this may be difficult. The server needs to communicate the request accurately to the chef. Someone needs to price the dish and this price needs to be relayed to and agreed by the customer, and then recorded accurately (maybe thru a computer system) so that it appears correctly on the final check.

So the whole issue of off-menu orders at the very least will place a strain on the operation of a restaurant. The important question is why would you want to do that to a restaurant that you like enough to dine in, and you go to often enough to believe they should accede to your off-menu request ?

Well if it's a test of the restaurant, then it's foolish. If it's just to establish your own status as a favored customer, then it's pretentious. If it's for reasons of dietary restriction, then it's something that should be organized in advance of your visit, so it no longer represents any of the problems discussed above. So what does that leave ? Well, just the possibility that on a whim, when you arrive to dine, you just fancy a particular dish which just doesn't happen to be on the menu. If that's all it is, then it really can't be a problem if the restaurant says no.

Of course, there do seem to be restaurants (according to some members here) that positively enjoy and encourage off-menu ordering, and then I would have few qualms about doing so. If this is the case, I cannot understand why such a restaurant would bother to print a menu. They might do better just toi list the main ingredients of the day, and let all their customers design their own dishes. But even in those cases, I would generally prefer to be adventurous, and be guided by the chef's judgement as expressed on his menu.

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