How the growing secret dining trend in Halifax and elsewhere is bringing us closer to the people behind the food.
Published in the July/August issue of Halifax Magazine.
Our third course was grilled hamachi kama—the neck of a yellowtail tuna—and, like the other five courses we had at Suzuki Restaurant on Dresden Row that evening, we didn’t know it was coming. With a large fin dramatically flashed to one side and a seared golden brown collar packed with a sweetly delicate and fatty meat resting opposite, it was the most unique—and best—plate of the night. I’d never had anything like it, and if we didn’t order omakase I would have had no idea it existed. But that’s the point.
Omakase (pronounced o-mah-kah-say) roughly translates from Japanese to “I leave it to you,” and when you ask for it at a Japanese restaurant it means your chef will prepare a special meal made up of seasonal ingredients and items not found on the menu. The catch: everything remains a secret until it arrives on the table. Though not the best option for the risk-averse diner, omakase is a fantastic way to stretch the palate and give your chef a chance to flex some creative muscle. It’s also a way to get in on the secret menu trend sweeping North American restaurants.
From kimichi stews to burrito and quesadilla melds to s’more milkshakes, unlisted options are on the rise in restaurants from San Diego to St. John’s. You just have to know what to ask for. Here in Halifax, it’s usually Asian restaurants that keep the best secrets. At 9 + Nine in Clayton Park, for example, special items are written on a wall in Chinese, and at Taipan, located in the Maritime Centre’s food court, you can order from a secret menu found by the cash.
The Great Wall on Bedford Row has a 110-item special menu (only available if you ask for it) written in Chinese with rough English translations that are packed with Chinese dishes like stuffed eggplant and barbecue half duck. “It’s quite popular with the Chinese clientele we’ve built up over the years,” says Sali (last name withheld), a server at The Great Wall, “but non-Chinese people order off it as well—those who know about it at least—because they’re attracted to the authenticity of it. They don’t want beef and broccoli or sweet and sour chicken. They want to have real Chinese food and there aren’t a lot of places in the city that offer it.”
Authenticity is also one of the main reasons why customers are attracted to omakase, says Yoshi Suzuki, owner of Suzuki Restaurant. “It is very rare that someone asks for it,” he says, “but those that do usually say they’ve been to Japan and had it, so we offer it to recognize the traditions of Japanese cooking and to give an option for those who know what it is.”
Chain restaurants in the city and elsewhere are getting in on the secret menu trend as well. McDonald’s, for example, has an unlisted Mc10:35 sandwich that’s only available at 10:35 a.m. and consists of a McDouble topped with the egg and bacon from an Egg McMuffin. Starbucks has liquid cocaine (four shots of espresso and white chocolate syrup over ice in a grande cold cup) and Captain Crunch Frappuccino (caramel syrup, two shots of toffee syrup, one pump of hazelnut and two scoops of chocolate chips) among other special concoctions.
It was likely these chains that helped get the trend started, says Jon Snyder, one of the three people behind HiddenMenu.com, a website that outs restaurants’ secrets. In particular, he points to In-N-Out Burger, a popular chain of fast food restaurants in the western United States that’s had unlisted menu options for at least 20 years—things like fries well done or a burger made animal style (cooked in mustard) with a special secret sauce. “I don’t know if In-N-Out Burger started the hidden menu trend,” he says, “but they certainly put it on the radar.”
Diners like secret menus because they give them a personal connection with those who make and serve their food. “So many people want to have a unique dining experience,” Snyder says. “And the best way to do that is to have a really good relationship with the restaurant. When you order off the menu, you create that relationship by interacting with the chef, the server. It becomes a personal experience and that’s authentic, that’s an authentic food experience.”
But it’s not just restaurants getting in on the secret trend. Bars are also looking to attract people with their own covert cocktails, and some, like Noble here in Halifax (under Middle Spoon on Barrington Street), are even keeping the entire business under wraps. To get into Noble you need a password, which changes every week (hint: check Middle Spoon’s website). “The idea behind it was to only make it accessible to people who wanted to find it,” says Jenner Cormier, the bartender who came up with the idea for Noble more than a year ago and helped open it in January. “The type of people who are willing to look a little harder, go a little further and step a little outside their comfort zone,” he says.
Whether going omakase, downing a Mc10:35 or discovering an underground bar, when you’re in on a secret, you’re in on it with the people behind the secret. “And that’s the best part,” says Snyder. “You get to interact with these people as people and not as service providers and not just as food and drink entrepreneurs. It’s an approach that says we’re people who love food and drink together, so let’s enjoy this experience together. And that’s what it’s all about.”