The Collective: Sorta Like Grandma’s House Went Down the Rabbit Hole … and Ended Up in MePa

How to describe The Collective. It’s sorta like grandma’s house went down the rabbit hole…

Pillars are draped in faux bling, bound in cable ties to look like a bristle brush or covered in a knotted weave of those skinny, noodley balloons (called twisting balloons) used to make balloon animals.

Tables have been inlaid with incomplete Scrabble tile sets purchased on eBay; street signs, bath tubs and even a classic “Walk/Don’t Walk” sign (which makes for a particularly warming seat) are now chairs.

The light fixtures are striking, particularly the prescription pill bottle chandelier with its surprisingly delicate orange glow and the giant sculptural ceiling light made of styrofoam. It just goes on and on…

Bottom line: Thanks to the craftsmanship of some crazy, brilliant, out-there, what’s old is new again and hardly anything is what it seems. Everything in the restaurant is reclaimed or redone somehow, or used in an unexpected way.

Even the truffled deviled eggs came out lined up in an overturned egg carton, and the chicken-n-waffles ($12) — a table favorite — came out in a hot cast-iron skillet, presumably the one that had something to do with how the dish was cooked.

But then, everything else was presented on … white plates. Rectangular white plates, oblong white plates, white bowls, all uniform white, white, white.

“Wouldn’t it be cool if all the plates, glasses and flatware were mismatched, too?” our table mused. “They could be sourced from flea markets or … bought up at auctions from restaurants or wholesalers in incomplete sets. Something…”

Really, so insignificant. But we just loved the decor so much we wanted it to go all the way, down to the level of detail where that aesthetic would still be there even when we finally pulled our eyes away to look down at our food.

Oh yeah, the food! Lands solidly in the “grub” category. There are more ladylike dishes on the menu, but the best of what I sampled was the hands-on finger foods.

So whether it’s Hong Kong ribs ($20) at 10 p.m., a late-night dessert of the (darling) housemade fudgesicles on a stick ($8), or a 4 a.m. order of disco fries ($12) to sop up the booze, just get messy.

The Collective, 1 Little W. 12th St., at 9th Ave., 212-255-9717. More information can be found here.

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Pies ‘n’ Thighs, Back in Biz in Williamsburg (aka the “But Was It Worth the Wait?” Post)

Decent fried chicken? Check.
Fairly priced? No doubt.
Charming decor? Utterly adorable.
And the pie? Outta this world.

And yet, I hate to say it, but as I scraped together the few last bites of now-tepid collard greens, I couldn’t push back that nagging question that’d been lurking near consciousness since my first bite: This is what all the hype was about?

The briefest background for those not super-saturated with New York hot-button food topics: Chatter about the imminent reopening of this beloved neighborhood spot by this city’s fried chicken obsessed legions had reached near-deafening levels since the New Year.

More than a little swept away by the crescendo of voices — writers, bloggers and Twitterers, you too — chanting for Pies ‘n’ Thighs return, I was prepared for it, (dare I say it?) … this could be the best fried chicken I’ve ever tasted in my life. And, of course with that expectation in mind — it wasn’t. Good? Yes. OMFG-mind-blowing-beyond-words? Not tonight.

The skin was thick and a bit saggy on the bird, and I find one of the great joys of eating fried chicken to be the skin that’s so crisp it’s to the point of translucence. But let’s get down to it: Was the meat inside moist? Certainly. The whole meal ($10.99) was generously portioned and I handily finished everything, even my giant bowl of mac n’ cheese and second giant bowl of pork-laced collard greens. (I was very hungry.)

Unexpectedly — as I’m always a savory-first, sweets-second sort of girl — my favorite part of the meal was dessert. I shared a slice of peanut butter pie (bottom) and coconut cream pie with the chef, and both of them were just sublime.

The peanut butter pie reminded me of nothing so much as one giant Reese’s filling, only better, and as dense but creamier. It’s the sort of slice that’s best enjoyed by one forkful at a time — savor the bite, let the flavors melt into your mouth, set down the plate and go back for another bite a few (or 15) minutes down the way. It’s the perfect slice of pie for watching a movie.

And the coconut creme pie was pillowy and tropical, a luxurious pudding that was best eaten in-hand (so as to keep the filling from sliding off the crust). A thin chocolate layer added to the decadence. I’ll be chasing after the memory of slices like these when I order pie again in the near future.

So will I be back? Most definitely, for more things that come with biscuits, more pie, to explore more of the menu, and yes, probably one day for more of the protein portion of the restaurant’s namesake — although it’s telling that the fried chicken is at the last in line. Maybe by that time the hype will have subsided and the chicken and I, we can have a proper introduction.

No wonder chefs, restaurateurs and almost anyone involved with the business of food have a love/hate relationship (more like, hate/lukewarm like/hate some more) with the food blogsphere — although, for what it’s worth, that chatter showed me the door.

Pies ‘n’ Thighs, 116 S. 4th St., at Driggs St., 347-529-6090. Open daily.

Tuesday: Simple Italian with a Touch of Ferrari Red (aka the “Trattoria Cinque Discovery Post”)

When I come across a solid restaurant concept, I like to sometimes pretend that I know enough about the business that can dissect why it works.

rustic bread, fresh ricotta, E.V.O.O., black pepper
rustic bread, fresh ricotta, E.V.O.O., black pepper

I was up for the challenge at Trattoria Cinque on Tuesday. This newish neighborhood spot in Tribeca is a good find — crowd-pleasing trattoria-style Italian run by Italians in a venue that could just as easily be the spot for a low-key, midweek meal with a friend (or three) as for a birthday dinner production for 20.

As far as I can ascertain, here’s why it works:

photo-21Start with stylish, but unpretentious, decor: From the street, you want to walk inside.

Stunning (original) exposed brickwork, vaulted ceilings, brown leather banquets, industrial matte black lamps, backlit bottles of lemoncello, chairs and other accents painted official Ferrari red paint — I was told the design is intended to channel the Ferrari factory, circa 1950s, and it works. It’s fun without being gimmicky.

Keep the concept simple: “Cinque” is Italian for “five” and, appropriately, the menu has five beginnings, five pizzas, five big plates, five pastas, five endings.

On top of that, the entire menu receives a makeover about five times a year, to account for seasonality, popularity and whatever else. Plenty of room for the kitchen to engage with the crowd and evolve responsively.

Make it accessible: The most expensive thing on the menu at the moment is a $25 ribeye steak that’s aged for weeks in a meat locker on site. That’s cheap, especially for this neighborhood, but my favorites of the evening (I didn’t try the steak) were priced well below that.

photo-17The first thing I’ll be back for are Trattoria Cinque’s thin, oblong pizzas ($11-$12) like the pizza con gorgonzola e pere, a delicate, ultra-thin crust pie that is finished with white truffle oil and fresh ground pepper. It’s cooked perfectly and evenly throughout, and somehow, that thin crust holds itself together long enough for you to get it in your mouth.

photo-19Also: A fantastic Caesar salad ($10) that is only deserving of such a production:

Each one ordered is prepared from scratch at a tavola, or a large, wooden table placed prominently and dramatically in the main dining room. It’s dining meets spectacle, old world style.

And before I come back for the brasato di Manzo — braised beef short ribs with white polenta ($20), the hearty meat and potatoes dish I ordered on Tuesday — I’d dig into the list of pastas, all of which are made in-house. Entrée portions of pasta dishes run $14-$18, like most of the menu.

Eventually, we got around to desserts … but by then a bottle of grappa and a bottle of limoncello had showed up on the table. It was time to relax.

TIP: Trattoria Cinque is currently offering a “Pie, Peroni & Pigskin special” on Monday nights where $15 gets you a pie and two Peronis. And, presumably, some NFL football on the TVs in the bar area.

Want more food shots? There’s a photo of the frito misto plate — fried calamari, shrimp, artichoke hearts, and lemon slices — after the jump:

Continue reading “Tuesday: Simple Italian with a Touch of Ferrari Red (aka the “Trattoria Cinque Discovery Post”)”

Thursday: Finally, Free Meal at Brasserie Comes True (aka the “$19.59 Three-Course Good Value” Post)

It’s true. I wound up at Brasserie in Midtown East on Thursday night, photo-6enjoying a free, three-course meal, plus a couple of not-free cocktails from their $9 Vintage Cocktail menu, because of Twitter.

More precisely, because of a tweet from my friends at Wined & Dined (who I’ve leveraged previously for some food deal hookups) announcing that Brasserie, in celebration of its 50th Anniversary, was offering a free lunch on Sept. 17 until reservations were full.

Lunch was booked up by the time I called, but the restaurant gave me an even sweeter deal: A complimentary three-course dinner, on the night of my choosing (before November 1), so long as the reservation was booked for 9 p.m. or later.

And, surprisingly, there was no other catch. We were comped the restaurant’s “$19.59 after 9” menu, which is on through the end of October. Since there was two of us, we decided to just order the whole thing and do a mini tasting.

photo-7Here’s the breakdown:

Appetizers

French onion soup: This molten, cheese-crusted bowl of soup didn’t skimp on portions, and we ended up using pieces of the fresh baguette (one comes with every table) to sop up the broth and polish off all that cheese. Great for two people to split; a really large portion for one.

Pâté de Campagne: My favorite of the two. Better portion size, a savory pâté, plus, I always love the “some assembly required” appetizer: layering spicy French mustard, pâté, a slice of cornichon, a touch of frisée.

photo-9Entrees

The Brasserie burger: A towering burger, stuffed with cheese, more cheese melted on top and garnished with frizzled onions. Served between sliced, toasted halves of a French bread loaf and served with a heaping side of hot, fresh French fries. I tried my best to finish my half — but no go. This burger is a serious meat rock.

photo-8Poulet, frites and salad verte: Again, the portion of this plate is so, so generous. It comes with an entire half of a roasted chicken, bones trimmed up in the French style, plus a heaping portion of fries and a dab of salad.

The chicken was well-executed and moist enough,  if a bit bland — I was wishing for more evidence of herbs and seasoning. But that was sort of the modus operandi for everything that came out of the kitchen — well-executed, if a little ordinary. Maybe “playing it safe” is a better phrase?

But generous meal for free? In no way am I complaining.

photo-10Dessert

The desserts, on the other hand, I could have skipped. (Trade out for a cocktail?) The beignets unsure of their beignet-ness — a little bit doughnut, a little bit churro and a little bit beignet, and not so fresh.

And the creme carmel, too, didn’t impress. Then again, this might have been my stomach having reaching its capacity, vetoing any more intake.

Verdict

The $19.59 special is a great value if you’re hungry, and a little overwhelming if you’re not.

…On the other hand, the $9 Vintage Cocktail menu, which includes a specialty cocktail from each decade of Brasserie’s history (you can find a copy of the menu here) beats out just about any others you could possibly scour up in this part of Midtown, at least in terms of price and strength. Imbibe and enjoy, carefully.

Brasserie, 100 E. 53rd St., near Park Avenue, 212-751-4840

Sunday: Barbecue, Squared (and a Birthday, to Boot!)

Almost didn’t make it to the second barbecue of the day because we were busy working our way through a basket of rib tips at Brother Jimmy’s BBQ, which happen to be one of my favorite food discoveries so far in New York City — rib tips are like these gnarled, meaty, fatty end-of-rib knuckles and they’re so, so good.

I think I might like them better than ribs. The ultimate test will be when I rise to the challenge of Brother Jimmy’s Monday night special: $15.95 for all-you-can-eat rib tips and all-you-can-drink domestic draft (maximum two hours). Hot damn. We’ll find out how many rib tips this girl can truly put away when that day comes.

photo-3photo-4Thankfully, I did get to the second barbecue just in time: It was after the dishes were washed and the home-smoked pulled pork, smothered in a delicious hickory-style spicy barbecue sauce, had been packaged into leftover bags … but (and this is key) before the pork, dishes, et. al. walked out the door. Meaning, I swooped in and got one!

They layering of the sandwich is key, my friend, the pitmaster (if you’ll recall, the one responsible for the delicious tea-smoked chickens), advised: Coleslaw, then sliced white onion, then pork, pickles on top. One of these little pulled pork sandwich gems, paired with the cutest miniature cupcakes from Crumbs Bakeshop … this Sunday birthday party was kickin’ yet.

Wednesday: Going Halvesies (aka the “La Palette Burger Fallacy” Post)

I eat enough burgers to know that the big boys are 8 oz. and up, the average burgers 6-8 oz. and fast-food style burgers, i.e. Shake Shack (which I adore) and 5 Guys (which I hate), are a slim 3-4 oz. These are just the rules of the burger kingdom.

photo-9So when I spotted a 12 oz. burger on the menu at La Palette, both when I was browsing their online menu and also later on the menu in the restaurant, I’m pretty sure my eyes bugged out in that cartoon-y way, just a little bit. TWELVE OUNCES?! This thing has got to be just gargantuan.

And cheap, at $13 for a burger (add $1 for a fried egg) plus fries and salad. This sounds like an impossibly good deal; I had to try it. Sometimes, impossibly good deals do exist. Not sure I could do this alone, I convinced my friend to split the “Tudo” burger me: 12 oz. of top sirloin beef, melted mozzarella, mayo, boston lettuce, tomato and a fried egg.

photo-10We were half-way on our back to watching Top Chef when it dawned on me that we hadn’t even looked at it yet. Let’s see this thing. And … disappointment. My first though was, “There is no way that can be 12 ounces.”

Next, optimism. Outloud I said, “I wonder if there’s two patties? One on each side of the bun, like an open-faced burger?”

Then, realism sets in. “Nah, that’s just the egg,” my friend says, referring to the lumpy shape on the top half of the bun that, in the darkness, I’d been *hoping* was melted cheese obscuring a second patty — not because a burger needs that much beef, but on principle. But she was right. It was just the egg.

photo-11A block later we came upon a mostly empty Magnolia Bakery.

“Eff it, let’s get a cupcake to split, too,” I said.

Spontaneity is the key to my Magnolia Bakery strategy: If you happen to walk by and it happens to not have a hoard of tourists queuing up down the street, go.

Because they do make really great cupcakes: Light and cakey with a tall head of frosting, neither top nor bottom too sweet, Magnolia’s cupcakes are all about classicism: cake flavors are typically vanilla, chocolate or red velvet; the frosting either white or brown or lightly tinted in pretty pastel shades, with plenty of peaks and curves in which to catch traditional toppings, like sprinkles or chopped walnuts.

Half a cupcake (two big bites) was the perfect pairing to half a burger (about five bites); I’d even choose to do it again, on purpose. The burger was well-seasoned, well-executed, and generally a success — aside from the false advertising. It would behoove La Palette to fix their menu; it’s not like they’d have to lower the price.