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Midnight madness

Restaurants are offering late-night menus to please night owls who want exciting food and drink into the wee hours.

Late night menus have always been available in “cities that never sleep,” like New York, Chicago, L.A., Miami, and Las Vegas. And even less populated metropolitan areas have their 24-hour diners and bars where a hungry soul can grab a bite to eat way past dinnertime. But modern-day midnight snackers want more than the usual burgers, pizza, omelets, or stack of pancakes when hunger strikes after traditional dinner service ends. These days, they have more destinations to choose from—many of which are serving up more interesting fare.

Landmarc, a 100-seat contemporary bistro in New York City’s Tribeca neighborhood, has been feeding customers into the early morning hours since it opened its doors in early 2004. “I was very adamant about it from the beginning,” says owner/executive chef Marc Murphy. “If customers come in at 1:55 and want a three- course meal with wine, I want to be able to accommodate them.” The restaurant currently stays open until 2 a.m. seven days a week.

Murphy likes to offer a full dinner menu all night long, and people tend to order across the board. Some prefer one of the restaurant’s signature cocktails, such as the Ice Wine Martini, accompanied by an appetizer like Warm Goat Cheese Prof­iteroles with Herb & Roasted Pepper Salad ($10), while others opt for the heartier braised lamb shank ($23) or hangar steak ($22). Offal is more often requested after 11 p.m., with Landmarc’s Crispy Sweet­breads, Horseradish & Green Beans ($22) a favorite. And pasta specials, mussels, and salads are offered in two sizes, making them well-suited to unpredictable late-night appetites.

The restaurant’s wine program and shareable sweets also adapt well to dining late. Murphy went out of his way to stock the cellar with many half-bottles, marking them up with a gentle hand. And in a clever move, he offers a sampling of his six desserts for $15, including such temptations as crème brûlee, nutella eclair, and blueberry crumble. The dessert sampler is very popular with the late-night crowd, Murphy reports.

Landmarc’s chef de cuisine, two sous chefs, and several servers stay into the early morning hours to keep the kitchen and front of the house covered. “I want to offer the same food and service whether people come in at noon or 2 a.m.,” Murphy explains, adding that he’d rather pay a little overtime than be short-staffed. Landmarc does up to 50 post-dinner covers on any given evening. Several of these are regulars, including an anesthesiologist whom Murphy claims walked in at 1 a.m. for 50 nights in a row. There’s also a good showing of hospitality industry colleagues who can’t get away from the stove, bar, or reservation desk until at least 11. Word travels fast in the restaurant community, and Landmarc counts many waiters, bartenders, and line cooks among its late-night clientele.

A number of restaurateurs initiate late- night dining programs primarily to feed their peers, and often the public follows. Doraku, a 100-seat Japanese concept in Miami Beach launched a weekly industry night on Thursdays six months ago to enthusiastic response. A live DJ, two-for-one cocktail specials, and Asian tapas (sushi, beef maki, and yakitori) attract employees from nearby hotels and restaurants as well as consumers out for a good time. The kitchen winds down around 1 a.m., although guests are welcome to stay until 2 o’clock.

“Tapas are the best way to go for late-night menus,” says GM Adrian Najara. “People tend to come in groups and like to share plates of food along with drinks.” Among the most requested of those drinks are Doraku Lemonade (citron vodka, homemade ginger ale, and lemonade), a Watermelon Litchi Martini, and a selection of 18 sakes—served chilled in the traditional bamboo box.

Charlie Deal is also aiming to attract industry folks in Durham, NC, by keeping the kitchen at his new pan-Asian spot, Grasshopper, open until at least midnight and as late as 2 a.m. But he’s hoping to lure the local college and professional crowd, too, offering an eclectic menu of Chinese dim sum ($3-$5) and small dishes ($4-$7) like Vietnamese Salad Rolls, Coconut-Rice Crepe with Vegetables and Herbs, and Watercress-Duck Salad with Tamarind Vinaigrette.

“Our food is easy to reproduce with a small, late-night crew,” says Deal. “We only need one or two people to fill orders, and those employees can also do some prep work for the next day.” He’s serving a limited menu that evolves from that night’s dinner service; it’s presented on a chalkboard so the cooks can decide on the spur of the moment what small dishes they’ll offer and quickly erase those no longer available.

Owner Deal thinks that Grasshopper’s location in the university district will be conducive to more inventive dining. “We’re in the middle of a late-night bar scene, but most of the bars that serve food offer the typical chicken wings and burgers,” he explains. “We’re putting much more effort into our menu and the customer base here is sophisticated enough to appreciate that.”

At the luxe Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas, high rollers with highly demanding palates are also seeking a late-night dining experience that’s a cut above, and Fix Restaurant & Bar delivers. The 148-seater in the hotel’s lobby serves until midnight weeknights and 2 a.m. weekends, dishing up lots of shareable items and finger foods.

“Composed, individual plates are not the way guests want to eat here after hours,” points out Oliver Wharton, director of Restaurant Operations for the Light Group, which runs Fix. “It’s a place people go to satisfy their cravings…to get their ‘fix.’”  Towards that end, the menu boasts such signatures as “perfect, one-bite” Buffalo Style Chicken Wings ($14); Smoked Salmon & Osetra Caviar Poppers with warm scallion blinis ($19); a threesome of Kobe Sliders with aged cheddar, grilled onions, and spiced fries ($21); and a sampler of Crispy Rock Shrimp, Ipswich Clams, and Calamari to dip in creamy ponzu, Thai chili, and tartar sauces ($14).

In true Vegas style, “wow” presentation is part of the package, too. Customers gape as the poppers come to the table speared on cocktail forks that fit vertically into a custom-designed tray, or a unique tiered stand goes by holding a vast assortment of pristine raw shellfish and sashimi. Yet guests find the Fix dining experience very approachable and lots of fun, Wharton claims. Although the attention-getting presentation turns heads, the ingredients are familiar, and the menu user-friendly and unintimidating.

The same effort and quality that goes into the food goes into Fix’s drinks. Fresh juices and purees, hand-muddled fruits and herbs, and cocktails crafted to complement the menu make up the list, with selections such as the Pineapple Mojito and Cucumber Martini running $10-$11. “Both our food and our drinks are pretty labor-intensive, so prices are on the high side,” says Wharton, “but people come here for our signature items and are willing to pay for them.” He adds that both locals and tourists have contributed to Fix’s late-night coffers since the restaurant’s opening a year ago.

The same holds true at the 81-seat Della Femina in the ritzy enclave of Easthampton on Long Island, NY. Executive chef Michael Rozzi introduced his late-night menu during the height of the summer, when travelers flock to the area, but he intends to continue it through the fall and winter for resident diners. The selections are “in the spirit of finger food but way beyond mozzarella sticks,” Rozzi says. Examples include Asparagus and Pro­sciutto Rolls with pecorino cheese ($7), Warm Peekytoe Crab Dip with housemade flatbread ($12), Della Femina “An-­tipasti” with Rustic Flatbread ($15), and Sushi Fluke Tartare with hijiki seaweed and wasabi tobiko ($12). Other favorites  are a New York State Arti­sanal Cheese Plate ($12) and full dessert selection.

“Some people fuel up with drinks and nibbles around 11 p.m. before going out to the clubs, while others come by after the movies for desserts,” Rozzi reports. “My menu gets them at both ends.” With due credit to his food, he admits the “knockout wine list and dynamite cocktails” drive the late-night menu. Della Femina serves several wines by the glass, including three sparklers and several award-winning Long Island varietals for $9-$14. And the cocktail list gets a big thumbs up from the cosmopolitan clientele. Aside from the crowd-pleasing mojitos and margaritas, signatures range from a fresh peach martini to the Italian Dream made with lemon vodka. “Our bartender is very enthusiastic and that spreads to the customers,” Rozzi adds. And enthusiastic customers tend to order more and linger longer.

The bar drives the menu at other late-night places, too. New World wines are the focus at the 150-seat Viand Bar & Kitchen in Chicago, and an extensive by-the-glass selection is available for $8-$15 after 11 p.m. GM/Director of F&B Rory Flot trains his servers to suggest complementary foods from the late-night menu of appetizers and sandwiches ($8-$15). Kobe beef sliders, tequila-marinated shrimp skewers, and flaming jerk wings are some of the top sellers. Viand also offers a list of “culinary cocktails” that some patrons prefer to pair with the food. These include Cosmos with drunken cranberries and cinnamon-apple martinis.

At La Sala in the Valencia Hotel in La Jolla, CA, executive chef Judd Canepari created a late-night food menu in response to demand from patrons drinking in the lounge. The Tapas Menu at La Sala—the new name given to the lounge— has a Spanish flavor in step with the hotel’s vibe; it features such items as Lobster Paella Stuffed Calamari ($9), Assorted Spanish Cheeses ($8), and Tortilla Española ($6). The menu relies on local California ingredients and changes seasonally.

“Tapas are made for convenience,” says Canepari. “They’re not too labor intensive and they’re a great way to cross-utilize ingredients from our other three restaurants. The Tapas Menu has been very favorable to our bottom line.”   


Tapas’ Passage to India

The two-year-old vermilion fuses contemporary Indian and Latin cuisine, so it’s not too surprising that tapas show up on the late-night lounge menu. What is surprising to executive chef Maneet Chauhan is the amazing response they’ve gotten. “I can’t seem to make enough,” she says of the four choices she offers everyday. They might include a passionfruit ceviche, Malabar crab cakes, a  spinach empañada, and always the Mysore lamb chops. “These are so popular, they have to stay on the menu,” Chauhan says of the chops, which are marinated and then tandoor-cooked.

During its recent Bollywood festival, Vermilion served Indian snacks and street food nightly until 3 a.m., including chickpea fritters with mango mint chutney and stuffed flatbread. Thirst quenchers on hand included cucumber-mint martinis, tamarind margaritas, and herbed white sangria. Hooray for Bollywood! 


Menu Sampler

Upscale

Vermilion
Chicago, IL
Five-Spice Scallops  $12
With spicy jalfrezi sauce.
Bajian Acaraje  $10
Brazilian bean croquettes studded with cumin roasted shrimp, served with spicy
pomegranate ginger chutney.

Midpriced

Lime
San Francisco, CA
Pork Quesadilla  $7
Braised pork in rich mole sauce with mango salsa.
Ricotta Gnocchi  $7
Shiitake mushrooms, thyme, parmesan cheese.

Hard Rock Cafe
Orlando, FL-based
Bloody Mary Shrimp  $9
Basted with pesto sauce and served with bloody mary salsa.
Wings Around the World  $9
A dozen chicken wings tossed with three sauces: classic, Moroccan, and Asian-sesame.

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