Enjoy your dinner with a side of history
Diners get a little something extra with their meals at the Collins House in Merchantville. Call it a side order of history. Not to worry. It doesn't cost extra and won't boggle the mind, as it did to most of us in high school. In fact, it enhances the ambience and helps satisfy those with an appetite for things from the past.
Most recently, the establishment housed another restaurant, Tavern on the Square, and before that Craig's Ice Cream Parlor. Back when the building was constructed in the spring of 1893, it started life as a lumber yard and grainery, said Collins House owner Halil Gungor.
Yet it was much more than that. Historian Maureen McLoone, author of the book Images of America and an authority on Merchantville's past, points out the Collins & Pancoast Building has had almost as many occupants as bricks. In 113 years, it has housed a store, a public hall, a post office, an auditorium, a dance school, a playhouse, a Masonic hall, an ice cream parlor and two restaurants. That feel of the past permeates the Collins House, even though there's new paint and trimmings. That feel is helped along by the unusual old-time chairs with circular wooden backs (we call them "pretzel backs" but others know them as "candy cane" chairs; a lady at an adjacent table called them "radical bentwoods") or the eye-catching wooden floor. A view of an old-fashioned gazebo outside one of the oversize windows seals the deal for me.
Besides history, customers get a second helping of something extra, a complimentary dish of fresh garlic bread surrounding a hummus of mashed chickpeas. (Gungor and his brothers, Metin and Medim, both chefs, are Turks). Mixed in is a sly suggestion of spice that merely alerts the tongue, but doesn't assault it. Nonetheless, we keep our spirits -- my date appreciates her vodka and tonic ($4.25) and I'm more than satisfied with my Smithwicks Irish beer on draft ($4) -- at hand. An informed server promises a pleasing imported brew and she's right. Consider it penciled onto my list of favorites.
Right under that I'll add melanzani fritti ($5.95), a sparkling hot appetizer of perfectly prepared roasted pepper, fried eggplant and fried mozzarella in a surprisingly light tomato and garlic sauce. "That dish gets a lot of raves at our other restaurant," says Gungor of the Farnsworth House in Bordentown. Just as enticing is my mate's moules a la mariniere ($7.95), a hot appetizer of firm mussels in a robust red sauce heavy with sweet chopped onions. No watery sauce for these fat morsels. Judging from our appetizers, the Collins House could be a destination for those intrepid souls who revel in ordering numerous appetizers and dessert and forgetting the entree; 15 other hot and cold appetizers average $7. Don't shudder over "melanzani fritti" or "moules a la mariniere." You needn't be fluent in Italian or Turkish to appreciate the menu. Selections are detailed in South Jersey's best English beneath the listing.
"That dish gets a lot of raves at our other restaurant," says Gungor of the Farnsworth House in Bordentown.
Don't shudder over "melanzani fritti" or "moules a la mariniere." You needn't be fluent in Italian or Turkish to appreciate the menu. Selections are detailed in South Jersey's best English beneath the listing.
This century-old oasis with a warm, friendly bar tucked around a corner is dressed up in stunning burgundy monochromatic style. Snow-white covers protect tables, while candlelight from small cut glass holders dance on tiny handfuls of fresh flowers nearby. It's a quiet, intimate establishment with a wine list and a menu that leans heavily toward Italian fare.
Take, for instance, the salmon, shrimp and sausage entree ($19.95). The main players in this fare are grand: pinkish salmon firmly cooked, two savory shrimp and a brace of enormous sweet sausages. However, a tart sauce of onions, peppers and too much zucchini that incorporates my side of green beans comes off as meddling with too many flavors.
My date's tournados a la Collins ($17.95) with artichoke hearts, green beans and roasted potatoes in port wine mushroom sauce suffer somewhat the same fate. Undercooked bacon encircling the tender beef gains the dish another red mark. Maybe fewer ingredients?
My warm apple crepe ($5) with caramel sauce from a short list of sweet endings is eminently shareable, though piped whipped cream looks adrift in enough caramel sauce for me and fellow diners at adjacent tables. A heaping dish of velvety vanilla bean ice cream ($2.50) satisfies my mate. Our check just nestles up to $85, not including a generous tip to our gracious, capable server.
The Collins House presents an Evening of Great Food Wine Tasting on March 10th at 7:00 p.m. featuring wines from the Sidney Frank Portfolio.