Undercover Grubber

April 18, 2013
The foie gras waffle at Marcel's is only available to those in the know.
The foie gras waffle at Marcel’s is only available to those in the know.

Restaurant regulars and industry insiders know that menus don’t always tell the whole story. Additional offerings lurk beyond every bill of fare; you just need to know how to ask for them. Knowledge of off-menu items — retired favorites, test recipes that never got off the ground, winks to frequent diners — can make you feel like a culinary operative, so we’re presenting intel on a few of D.C.’s best underground treats. Keep in mind that off-menu items typically appeal to connoisseurs of the cuisine in which the restaurant specializes, so they may be more esoteric than what’s printed for all to see.

Marcel’s Foie Gras Waffle
How do you free the waffle from the cage of “breakfast food”? At Marcel’s (2401 Pennsylvania Ave. NW; 202-296-1166), you load it up with seared foie gras. The foie gras waffle ($36, or a $16 upcharge when you add it to a tasting menu) is garnished with strawberries and a Sauterne-based sauce, which complements the decadence with sweetness. This is for true fans of foie gras only, as the waffle comes with a solid chunk of liver larger than those you normally find garnishing your fancy dinners.

Mandu’s Kimchibacks
Partiers and gluttons for punishment are familiar with picklebacks: a shot of whiskey followed by a shot of pickle juice. Mandu (453 K St. NW; 202-289-6899) gives the standard a Korean twist with kimchibacks, a shot of Jameson chased with a shot of juice from the restaurant’s homemade kimchee supply ($7). “There was a craze of picklebacks across the city,” says Mandu owner Danny Lee, “and we realized kimchee is basically spicy Korean pickle juice. So we tried it, and it spread pretty quickly. Industry friends will come in expecting to take one.” The vinegary kimchee counteracts the throat burn of the Jameson and even has antioxidant properties.

Room 11’s The Munchies
The late-night secret at Room 11 (3234 11th St. NW; 202-332-3234) isn’t long on subtlety. First of all, it’s called The Munchies. Second of all, it costs $4.20. What were we talking about again? Oh yeah. The Munchies. Whatever activities precede your enjoyment of the Rice Krispies treat shellacked with chocolate, potato chips and pretzels, we fully approve of its salty-sweet combination. The house-made snack is all about balance: The contrasting flavors wake you up after a long night of partying (though this might not be as fulfilling as a burger or a “Donnie Darko” marathon) and the treat’s just-like-Mom-used-to-make comfort offsets Room 11’s swanky cocktails nicely.

Mari Vanna’s Draniki
Servers at Mari Vanna (1141 Connecticut Ave. NW; 202-783-7777) can identify the real Russians from those just there for the vodka. True Russkies are those who notice a lack of draniki on the menu. The indigenous, shallow-fried potato pancakes — similar to latkes, but slightly more substantial — are made from grated potatoes, dill, garlic, eggs, black pepper and salt and come with a side of sour cream and smoked salmon ($12). Enjoy them surrounded by Instagram-able tchotchkes and glass jars of hard candy in the three-level restaurant designed to resemble a quaint little grandmother’s house. Mari Vanna even gives regulars a set of front-door keys so they can access exclusive DJ nights on Mondays.

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