A True NYC Unicorn: Food Cooked on an Outdoor Grill at an Island Retreat
On Governor's Island, Collective Retreats' Wood-Fire Grill menu is a totally unique big city experience
I still remember the scorch of grilled bread, the creamy long beans and potato salad, the lightness of the curried turbot, the spark of the harissa jerk chicken, and the char of the spiced caramel pineapple — but I also remember the views. It was about 7:30pm in mid-July when I arrived at Collective Retreats on Governors Island to try the new Wood-Fire Grill menu, and a dreamy sorbet-colored sunset had just begun to appear in the sky, casting tangerine light onto my table. Wind fluttered gently into the tent where I sat, beige canvas flapping in the breeze. It was a whole experience, really, one I’d venture to say many New Yorkers don’t regularly get within the confines of the five boroughs. But that’s the point.
Collective Retreats emerged as New York’s “glamping” destination on Governors’ Island in 2017, and its Wood-Fire Grill menu began this past summer, a fine dining addition to the campgrounds’ Three Peaks Lodge restaurant. Helmed by Executive Chef Ezra Lewis, formerly of Tom Colicchio’s Craft Steakhouse and Executive Chef at the Freehand Hotel, this menu is prepared on an Argentinian-style outdoor wood-fire grill. So yes, everything is outdoors, even the cooking. The team arrives around 1pm to start the fire, a living, breathing part of the kitchen. There are also fire pits on the grounds open to all guests to make s’mores, even if you’re just having dinner there for the night. This lends itself to a unique experience for all of us who are now more used to outdoor dining in the city taking the shape of pandemic-era, street-side sheds. Not to mention the significantly rarer opportunity to cook outdoors. But with the Wood-Fire Grill menu at the resort, with its always-intentional outdoor dining, views of the Manhattan skyline, the Statue of Liberty and, if you time it right, a sunset easing into the entire horizon, “the great outdoors” takes on a new, exciting, unique and luxurious experience.
The family-style tasting menu developed for the Wood-Fire Grill is available by reservation only. It runs about $120 per person for all four big dishes — from the sky, earth, sea, or land, as the menu says — and $95 per person for two big dishes, including appetizers, side dishes and desserts. In addition to what I ate, dishes have included branzino with Spanish aioli, apples, and frisée; mojo chicken; Argentinian-style steak with chimichurri; beef shoulder with cognac, cream, and green peppercorn sauce; grilled free-range chicken with green garlic emulsion; and smoked Shogun maitake mushrooms with tamari and kumquat glaze.
The Wood-Fire Grill menu changes often with the inspirations of the chef and the availabilities of the farmer’s market — it’s never printed out. “We’re able to cook in a way that a lot of people are not,” Chef Lewis tells InsideHook. “We design our menu in a way that’s extremely open, to allow us the flexibility to make a change on a whim…the protein at any given time can be either a reflection of access or a reflection of what’s good in the market that day, or what is something that generally just inspires us.” Chef Lewis hopes the experience will be at once “organic and rustic and raw and not pretentious in any way,” he says, while also understanding the beauty in its simplicity. It may not be something guests think is possible in an outdoor venue like this, he says, and he’s excited by the opportunity to show them it is.
The restaurant’s season corresponds with that of Collective Retreats, which is generally open until mid-November, but can be pushed if the weather is amicable enough. Although waiting to see the sunset is absolutely recommended, if you’re not staying the night, you can make arrangements to be picked up and dropped off at the Governors Island Ferry when making your Wood-Fire Grill menu reservations. And if you just want to see the sights, there’s also an a la carte menu that’s available to you with dishes like a smoked trout, baby gem caesar, a classic burger and more. “You come here and you spend two or three days, you can kind of live in a different space each night,” Chef Lewis says. “Something pulled back and rustic, something refined and creative, something approachable and recognizable. That’s the goal, to have something for everyone.”
Arriving on the site really does feel like a big exhale, a removal from city life while still being so close to it. This, the team believes, is another essential aspect of being there, “to get people to slow down and appreciate all the moments,” says Assistant General Manager Ian Law. “Like, the woodsmoke is right off of the bar. It’s intoxicating when you’re walking up to actually smell the smells. And take in the views as well, which obviously, as New Yorkers we have a hard time doing in general.” And how lovely to be able to do it in a fine dining setting stoked by a flame. “[It’s] the only place in New York City where you can have a s’more and look at the Statue of Liberty on a night, right?” Chef Lewis says. “It’s definitely something that’s a rarity.”
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