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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The $6 Wundersandwich (aka the “It Could Be Possible To Live Off Nha Toi’s Menu Alone” Post)

Finally. A $6 sandwich in New York City that is everything I’ve ever wanted: Badass baguette that’s so fresh it talks smack: “Oh yah, what. Bring it.” A serious veggie crunch and bold, fresh flavas that stand up to the succulent, meaty, (in this case porky) protein at its core.

There’s more, nine more banh mi on the menu — lemongrass pork cutlet or shitakke mushroom, anyone? — all priced at either $6 or $7 dollars, NSA.

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Nhà Tôi.

Don’t blink as you walk past this tiny storefront on Havemeyer Street, lest you miss it (inside, it’s almost all kitchen and about a mish-mashed seats). The bi heo sandwich that I had — stuffed with shredded pork and skin with roasted rice powder — trumps any banh mi I’ve had in the city, including Baoguette’s.

This is the kind of food memory that will make the injustices of that crappy, prepackaged salad lunch in Midtown and overpriced UES bodega sandwich — with all due respect, it’s just meat, cheese, shredded iceberg lettuce, watery tomato, raw onion on a passably fresh roll — all the greater.

But Nhà Tôi’s menu doesn’t stop there. Once you get past the sandwiches, there’s a full menu of pho to explore, as well as snacks. On my visit, I was blatantly oggling the crispy spring rolls at the next table (can’t help it, close quarters warrant awkward seating and wafting smells).

… and the drinks? Well, no booze. However, the lineup of canned Southeast Asian beverages strung up on a chord will keep you perennially interested, e.g. basil seed beverage with “creme soda flavour” ($2). What’s it taste like? Says Nhà Tôi chef/owner Fred, “Well, I grew up with it. So I love it. But there’s definitely a certain texture to it.

So how does Nhà Tôi keep their prices down? I’d guess from low overhead costs. In addition to being tiny, there’s only one menu, on a sheet of 8 1/2″ x 11″ paper, full of Sharpie cross-outs and tacked-on additions.

Why not print more? Not sure … that’s between a man and his laser jet. I’ll be back to Nhà Tôi in a split second, but I’m not going there.

Nhà Tôi, 160 Havemeyer St., nr. S. 2nd St., 718-599-1820. Cash only.

South 4th Street Just Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop, Blowing Up (aka the “Traif, Mazel Tov!” Post)

South 4th Street just can’t stop, won’t stop, blowing up.

First, Pies ‘n’ Thighs, and their glorious comfort food and even more glorious pies. Then, Dram, a cocktail geek’s cocktail bar that’s been almost two years in the making. I stopped by on Friday night and management said they’d “officially-officially” been open for a week at that point.

Now, the eminent arrival of Traif, with its passion for all things un-kosher organized into an eclectic menu of small, sharable plates of deliciousness — shrimp, scallops, bacon, chorizo, pork belly, pork cheeks, potstickers, foie gras, lobster, ribs several ways — separated from one of Brooklyn’s prominent Hasidic communities by a  mere eight lanes of traffic accessing the Williamsburg Bridge.

Foot-in-mouth move? No way.

The dynamic duo running the restaurant — co-owners Heather Heuser and chef Jason Marcus — were scouting locations in the East Village and LES for Traif long before settling on this South Williamsburg gem (check out the restaurant’s blog for photos of the sleek, casual interior and stunning backyard).

They’d also checked around a bit with the community, said Heuser, when the chef and I chatted with her on Friday night. If anything, the response they got back was: “Well, that makes it easy for us to know where not to go.” (“Traif” is a Hebrew word that refers to un-kosher foods.)

….Which just means more un-kosher goodness for the rest of us. High-five to that!

TIP: Absolutely do not skip one of Traif’s signature cocktails, the Red Pearl (chili-infused vodka muddled w/ kiwi, Thai basil and homemade sweet and sour mix), which is named in homage to the Cali restaurant where Heuser and Marcus first met. If the brightness and freshness of these flavors are any indication of the duo’s plans for the restaurant, I’ll toast to that.


Pies ‘n’ Thighs, 116 S. 4th St., at Driggs St., 347-529-6090. More info here.
Dram, 177 S. 4th St.,  btwn. Driggs St. and Roebling St., 718-486-dram. More info
here.
Traif, 229 S. 4th St., nr. Borinquen Pl., 347-844-9578. More info
here.

The Breslin’s English Breakfast Splurge (aka the “Must Add Pork Fat Beans!” Post)

For someone who can be so utterly particular about foods “touching” on her plate at this adult age — let’s just call it “a heightened sensitivity to plating” with dismissive hand wave (kidding!) — I should love, love, love The Breslin‘s full English breakfast ($21), which comes sans the traditional brekkie beans and, by extension, the tomato-y bean sauce that pools underneath everything.

I should love that there are no dry toast slices staring me down, begging me to sop up the mingling fatty-yolky-saucy drippings, right before I lick my fingers (possibly not kidding). The Breslin’s rendition is so clean it’s … a sensitive-to-plating foodie’s dream.

… Well except, this time, I sort of want the mess. I love the mess. How the first cut into an over-easy egg sends yellow yolk running into the bean sauce, which has by now commandeered the plate. And the fried tomato? Forget about it. Seeds and juice everywhere. Mmm, mmm, mmm.

By no means is this observation a slight toward the cooks, or the presentation. The execution of every component on this April Bloomfield gold-star dish is the picture of perfection: the browned casing of the breakfast sausage crackles with each bite; perfectly crisped (American-style) bacon; a grilled baby portobello, so succulent. The baked beans in pork fat, get outta here.

But for anyone who wants a truly sloppy English Breakfast, an already pricey meal goes over the top when you add a couple of slices of toast ($1.50/slice) and split a side of the (messy! soppy! delicious!) baked beans ($7). In sum, your English breakfast will cost you $27.50.

Or, I noticed, $2.50 more per person than it would cost to share the smoked pork belly with mashed potatoes at dinner, which is $50 and meant for two.

When I pointed this out to our waiter, he tried to justify the cost by (and I paraphrase): Well, sure, but to really round out the pork belly dinner, you’d probably start with an appetizer and you’d want to order a vegetable side, like the cabbage. And you’d want to balance it with something sparkly, like prosecco, which — did you know? — sparkling wines are the best to help you digest really fatty foods.

Damn that sounds like a gorgeous meal. Until then, you can find me in the bar, where I’ll be sipping on the house cask ale and nibbling on some bar snacks, which look scrumdiddlyumptious.

The Breslin Bar & Dining Room, 16 W. 29th Street, at Broadway, 212.679.1939

Monday: 110% Vindicated by Stuffed Bell Peppers Success (aka the “When a Market Offers You Three Types of Ground Meat in One Package — Buy It” Post)

Just ask anyone who’s been within 100 feet (okay, maybe 10 feet is more reasonable) of these stuffed peppers.

“Oh my god, it smells amazing,”

“I was going to ask you, where can I get some of that,”

“Something smells sooo good. Did you make that?!”

Why yes, yes I did.

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Started with an itch for chili rellenos (an entirely different beast) that I caught watching part of a dumb episode of Bobby Flay’s Throwdown show. I had peppers on my mind.

Then I found these really bulbous ones on sale for cheap at my local fruit-veggie stand on York Street in the Upper East Side. Inner monologue: “Really, two for $1? Shit that’s cheap.” “Alright, they may not be pobleno, but they’ve got potential.” (I bought four.)

I also had a box of Reese’s wild rice that I’ve been wanting to use. Call it the Minnesotan in me, but I adore wild rice —  it’s everything good about rice, only better: Granular, nutty, earthy, each grain fiercely independent and boasting actual nutritional value.

Bell peppers, rice, check, check. At this point I turned to the Internet. Hands down, the most influential recipe that I came across was this one, which opened my eyes to three great ideas:

No. 1: Slice the bell peppers in half. Who needs a whole stuffed thing, anyhow?

No. 2: Stuff the pepper halves with a ground meat-based mix (plus onion, egg, fresh herbs, etc.), not purely veggie-on-veggie, which can sometimes end up being watery, bland and … sad.

No. 3: Start off the peppers in a frying pan, a good few minutes on each side, before lining up on a baking tray in the oven. Dang, pan start and oven finish? You mean exactly the same method as so many other proteins? Must be on the right track.

photo-10I couldn’t find any single recipe to try, so this was me winging it. Truly, a BLD Project original recipe:

Banging Stuffed Bell Peppers

Serves 8

4 bulbous bell peppers, color of your choosing
2/3 of one small, white onion (to your liking)
2/3 of one stalk of celery, rinsed and diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
5-6 crimini mushrooms, cleaned and diced
¼ c. fresh flat-leaf parsley, loosely chopped (to your liking)
1 lb. ground meat of your choice — get creative
1 egg
1 c. cooked wild rice

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1. Get the water for the rice boiling because it’s going to take nearly an hour to cook.

2. Wash and core the bell peppers, meaning, make the smallest hole possible on top so you can extract the seed chamber inside. Cut each bell pepper in half, vertically. Trim off any membrane inside that annoys you (although it really doesn’t matter). This is not unlike cleaning a pumpkin.

3. Prep onion, celery, garlic and mushrooms. In a saute pan, low heat, olive oil, saute onion and celery. Set aside. In the same pan, no rinse necessary, saute the garlic and the mushrooms. Set aside.

4. While the rice is still finishing, boil another pot of water and gently blanch each of the bell pepper halves. Two or three minutes mostly submerged in boiling water — softens them up. No need to run under cold water. Just throw them back into the strainer.

5. Once the rice is done, fold the egg, the onion/celery mix, the garlic/mushroom mix, 1 c. wild rice, the fresh parsley, salt and pepper into the ground meat (I stumbled upon a veal/beef/pork combo at my local Food Emporium that was selling for $3.99/lb — that ended up being amazing).

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6. Mix thoroughly with your hands. Put your back into it.

7. Stuff each of the pepper halves so that they are ever-so-slightly mounding with stuffing.

8. Pan fry on both sides until you start getting some serious browning, or about 5-7 minutes on each side. (Really, don’t be gentle, these things are hard to overcook in a frying pan.)

9. Finish off in the oven at 350 degrees, another 10-12 minutes, depending your preference of done-ness and the intensity of your oven … but, let the record note, in my opinion it’s always better to have underdone meat than overdone meat — a microwave can finish off underdone meat in 30 seconds, whereas there is no going back once it has gone too far.

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.