The best dishes aren't on the menu

Ordering off the menu can do more for you than give you an enhanced dining experience. It shows you're brave, you're flush with cash and you're an insider. Of such small victories, life is made.

1. Pondicherry Café at the Sofitel, Mumbai
Featuring four live counters serving South East Asian, Indian and French food, Pondicherry Café is one of the more underrated restaurants in the city. Perhaps it’s due to the suspicious concept of ‘multi-cuisine’ or the décor, which jars as much as it dazzles. But quietly, it has been serving up some surprisingly innovative fare using rare ingredients sourced from different parts of the world.
Bread Fruit Cappuccino with honey and sesame
What it is: A frothy soup made from breadfruit – a rare vegetable sourced from the Creole region
Price: Rs 400
How to get it: Ask for the chef’s special 

2. Ellipsis, Mumbai
In 2006, a local newspaper in Chicago discovered the chef of a nebulous bistro in a mall and saw “flashes of brilliance” in his ambitious cooking. The only complaint the writer had was that the chef didn’t seem to have a handle on what his customers wanted, serving up Asian fare with a Western accent in an attempt to satiate a perceived stubborn palate. In 2012, when that Chinese-Canadian chef, Kelvin Cheung, took over the kitchen at Ellipsis, his stern regime (non-compliance in the kitchen is punishable with gruelling squats) slowly but successfully transformed the fortune of the Colaba eatery. The primary reason was Cheung’s receptiveness to customer demands, and his willingness to whip up specific, off-menu dishes, even taking to Twitter to field requests. Here the menu is simply an opening negotiating position, with several versions just waiting to be requested. One of Cheung’s most prized offerings is his take on Spaghetti Bolognese, prepared himself, using real beef (most places in Mumbai will serve you buffalo) – a recipe he hasn’t shared with any of his staff.
Chef’s Special Bolognese
What it is: USDA strip loin, San Marzano tomatoes and cabernet tossed with handmade fettuccine
Price: Rs 1,000
How to get it: Ask for fettuccine, animal-style
3.Le Cirque, New Delhi
This New York power brand once accorded the who’s who their place in society by where they were led to sit. Knowing something was off the menu here meant you were pretty much at the top. Even today in Delhi, if you’ve got the cash to flash, chef Mickey Bhoite won’t disappoint. Reserved for the most discerning guests is a cut of meat taken from the centre of a tenderloin, such that only one portion can be prepared from the whole animal, and only two portions can be served a day.
What it is: A 450g piece of chargrilled coeur de filet mignon, glazed with tarragon  butter and served with roasted  potatoes and béarnaise sauce
Price: Rs 12,000
How to get it: Ask for the Queen’s Heart, grilled
4.Ling’s Pavilion, Mumbai
A five-minute walk from the other Colaba eatery on our list, you won’t find the same receptiveness to customer demands here. In fact, the managerial staff at this Mangalorean Chinese family-owned eatery can be downright inhospitable, especially if you are a fussy eater, or a vegetarian. But pay no heed. Also ignore the rubberneckingly laboured faux bridges, plastic trees and koi pond with fake lobster and real fish. Because the simple kitchen churns out some of the city’s most flavourful Oriental fare, often using rare ingredients like pig knuckles – which, to any meat-starved carnivore in Mumbai, is manna.
Oxtail Stew  
What it is: Oxtail and peanuts braised in a secret spicy sauce
Price: Rs 400
How to get it: Nini Ling will sort you out

5.Monkey Bar, Bangalore
By definition, there’s not much a gastropub needs to do. The food should be populist, robustly flavoured and go well with beer. Table linen, if any, should seem incongruous. But Manu Chandra’s in-your-face brand does a lot: loud, droll, décor, fusion food and a Sambuca cocktail served on fire. It would seem that they’re trying too hard, but it only takes one visit to figure out that somehow it all works.
Jackfruit Biryani
What is it: Chunks of raw jackfruit simmered in onions and baked with long-grained rice
Price: Rs 365
How to get it: Call in advance. The minimum order is 4 portions

6. Indian Accent, Delh
Is there a word in gastronomy that provokes such extreme reactions as the loaded label “fusion”? But the experiments at this fine-grained eatery, housed in a boutique hotel, are so unabashed yet thoughtful that even the most suspicious of eaters can find little fault. The French believe that all a good foie gras needs is a piece of bread. But executive chef Manish Mehrotra drenches it in masala and puts it on a barbecue to grill. To which not just the French but anyone with any culinary cognition would say, “that’s a bad idea”. It’s like putting butter on, well, a grill. And right they would be, as half of the portion that Mehrotra places on the grill melts and drops into the pit. But once you put the surviving, quivering meat in your mouth, you’ll know it wasn’t a wasted exercise.

Tandoori Foie Gras
What is it: Tandoor-grilled foie gras with amla murabba and dehydrated paprika pineapple
Price: Rs 1,700
How to get it: Call 48 hours in advance to order
7. Madras Cafe, Mumbai 
Run by a genial Konkani family, this affordable Matunga joint is unbothered with trends, serving the same south Indian tiffin-style fare since 1940. Regulars can recite the few dozen items on its menu with little difficulty. But there’s a dish absent from the menu, fashioned fortuitously by an enthusiastic kitchen hand.
 Fuelled by the appearance of fresh vegetables in the kitchen, he created a punchy Kerala stew, which he served to a delighted family. When they asked for some appam to mop up the curry he had to refuse them. Appam is usually ready only by the evening. Unwilling to disappoint, he whipped up a rice dish with some tamarind and served the two together with a shower of raw onions. A combination so judicious, frequenters of this café ask for it unfailingly each time.
Kerala Stew Puliyo Dharai 
What it is: Veggies in spiced coconut milk, served with tamarind rice
Price: Rs 65
How to get it: Go for lunch after 2pm and hope the appam isn’t ready

-Nirmal Jain
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