Chefs who are worth their sea salt are at least accommodating, and generally pleased, when a diner orders “off the menu,” whether it’s a regular customer who’s savvy enough to know that past menu items can often still be had for the asking, or someone who simply wants to test — and taste — the chef’s skill at ad-libbing.
We asked five of our personal favorites what they do with an off-the-menu request. Interestingly, not one chose an easy way out.
Atlas Global Bistro
Executive chef Mark Woodford is all over the map in his “global” menu, regularly replacing dishes with new choices, but sometimes hearing from customers when he takes away a favorite. The national dish of Spain, paella, was a big hit, but is no longer on the regular menu. With a little notice, Woodford says he’s glad to put together his own version of paella, which has nearly as many variations as cooks. In his nontraditional take, Woodford sautés clams, mussels, shrimp, andouille sausage, chicken, scallions and garlic, tosses it with saffron rice and serves it in a bowl with chicken-saffron broth.
At 3111 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-831-2241.
Clearly emerging as one of metro Detroit’s finest chefs, owner Luciano Del Signore has chosen an Italian cooking style that relies heavily on simple preparations using the best and freshest ingredients. This leaves nowhere to hide mistakes, so he rarely makes any. His off-the-menu choice: branzino in cartoccio. Mediterranean sea bass is steamed in a bag with black olives (kalamatas), roasted tomatoes and asparagus tips, white wine and olive oil. “It’s just real simple Mediterranean pleasure,” Del Signore says. “Light, low in calories and all the flavors stay to their own, not as one uniform thing. Take a bite of fish, you taste the fish; a bite of olive, you taste the olive.”
At 29410 Northwestern Hwy., Southfield; 248-356-6600.
Five Lakes Grill
Like most great chefs, owner Brian Polcyn, one of our region’s best-known and best-liked kitchen masters, and the author of a soon-to-be-released charcuterie cookbook, focuses his attentions on seasonal products. “Almost every weekend I’ll do Georges Bank sea scallops, they’re sweet like candy, and tonight they’re on the menu with hash of redskin potatoes, sweet corn, wild mushrooms — including fresh morels — fiddlehead ferns, wild leeks and shrimp- cognac sauce.” But if a customer comes in and asks him to create a dish, “I just go in the kitchen and start having fun, walking up and down the line and picking ingredients,” he says. “The cooks call it ‘raping the stations.’”
At 424 N. Main St., Milford; 248-684-7455.
Portofino on the River
Taking full advantage of its fine river view, this Downriver favorite offers all the dishes customers might expect from an informal Great Lakes restaurant, but executive chef Michael Law tries to keep things unpredictable. “We do a lot of tasting platters, with things like mussels stuffed with lump crabmeat and served with sauce béarnaise,” he says. “Also tenderloin medallions with feta cheese cream sauce (feta is whipped into a reduction of white wine and heavy whipping cream); and sometimes ahi tuna carpaccio, served with balsamic-marinated strawberries with shallot and thyme. Each platter is pretty different, our own signature.”
At 3455 Biddle St. Wyandotte; 734-281-6700.
It’s tough to pin down owner-chef Jon-Louis Seavitt on his choice for an off-the-menu creation. Seavitt, who just opened his second restaurant, — Mary’s Bistro, on Mackinaw Island — prefers to go with “the freshest product I have, whether game, which I tend to lean toward, and I’m now buying fresh Hawaiian seafood that’s coming in.” It may be a “carpetbagger” of Kobe sirloin stuffed with oysters and wrapped in bacon, or a tapas-style selection of small dishes. “The other day I made caribou strudel,” Seavitt says. “I take a piece of backstrap or loin, sear it real good, shred it and mix that with a variety of dried fruits — apricots, dates, figs, cranberries, dried cherries — add a little bit of demi-glace and fresh breadcrumb to bind it up a little bit, roll it in phyllo dough and bake it.”
At 18450 Mack Ave., Grosse Pointe; 313-886-9950.Ric Bohy is editor of Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org