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Celina Tio puts her Collection downtown

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Collection — which chef-owner Celina Tio says she named for a gathering place in the boarding school she attended in her youth — is going to be a wonderful restaurant when it grows up.

It's been a challenging infancy so far. Tio may have taken this unforgiving stretch of Grand in the spirit of "build it and they will come," but the young and restless downtown diners who flock to Extra Virgin and the Jacobson have so far failed to stumble into Collection.

This despite Tio's celebrity status — the James Beard Award–winner is by now familiar from her appearances on reality-TV cooking shows — and in contrast to the almost immediate success she enjoyed with her earlier restaurant, Julian, in Brookside. Then again, there's a lot more than 5.8 miles separating Julian from Collection. The former opened in a location previously occupied by Joe D's Wine Bar, which had been a very popular neighborhood spot for two decades. Collection's building, on the other hand, is on a stretch of Grand that draws none of the family-on-a-stroll set, not much of the dating crowd at night, and scant foot traffic during the day (something Czar, the bar across the street, could have told Tio). Diners had eagerly awaited the arrival of Julian in Brookside, but few people seem to know that Collection exists or where it is.

Tio understands this. Part of the problem, she says, is that, unlike her opening at Julian, she took her time changing the space on Grand from the small, lunch-only café that used to exist here — a personality-free room with notoriously bad service — into Collection. The old restaurant was the sort of place where you'd see one of those big, neon "Open" flashers in the window. I'm starting to think that Tio should plug in one of those signs — I've eaten at Collection three times now, two dinners and a lunch, and the dining room has been nearly empty on each occasion.

And this isn't a dining room that forgives absence. It's big and gray, with charcoal carpeting and walls painted dove-gray and slate, and there's not enough art on the walls to warm up the cool interior. It's also quiet enough to notice the background music — and to be annoyed every five minutes or so when the music is interrupted by a commercial, because for some reason Collection tunes in a local radio station. You can get that ambience at Town Topic, which serves a much cheaper cheeseburger than Tio's (and includes fries rather than the chips Tio sets next to her sandwiches).

Still, Tio says she has big plans for Collection, including the Belfry (yet another nod to her schoolgirl past), a depot for coffee and pastry in the mornings and sandwiches and snacks until late at night. She says that's coming later this year. (Great, but I say she should order satellite radio first.)

For now, though, Tio is juggling two restaurants, and she has delegated many hands-on responsibilities to Michael Mosely (the longtime bar manager at Julian) and 26-year-old sous chef Dan Sowders, who started his career with Tio as a dishwasher, moving his way up under her critical eye. "I would never hire a sous chef from outside," Tio says. "I like to promote from my own staff."

Sowders is very talented. A recent soup that he created — a tart, briskly chilled puree of cucumber and pink grapefruit — was refreshing in every sense of the word. But I would have enjoyed it more on a scorching-hot day instead of a dreary, muggy one, when it went down like a very upscale smoothie. Sowders also makes the best calamari I've ever tasted: tempura-battered pieces of fresh squid — "I have it flown in from a new vendor in Boston," Tio says — that melt on the tongue and are complex even without the accompanying jalapeño-and-harissa aioli.

Harrisa — that Tunisian hot sauce made with garlic, cumin, coriander and caraway — is why the spicy crème fraiche accompanying the sweet roasted carrots at Collection makes this one of the most arresting vegetable starters in town. I also give high marks to the fluffy cloud of goat cheese, whipped with olive oil and smartly arranged with roasted beets and a scattering of pistachios. It's served with crostini made from Farm to Market baguette, but my table finished it off with the butter-griddled Farm to Market bread that's an appetizer in its own right, sided with a dollop of red-wine apple butter (heavier on the wine than on the apple). A vegetarian could make a meal of the Collection starters — and might have to, because the five main courses and the seven choices in the "Sandwiches n' Stuff" category aren't particularly friendly to the meat-free. (Sowders says he's ready to riff on the menu for vegetarians.)

I have an almost visceral negative reaction to any menu that calls its food "stuff," and I cringed when the server asked me, straight-faced, what "stuff" I wanted added to my cheeseburger. (The choices include an egg, bacon and mushrooms.) I went without any stuff, and that helped me taste a burger that was outstanding with cheese alone.

It's not all hand-held choices in this category: There's a really fine macaroni and cheese, made with deliciously nutty Spanish manchego and bits of Serrano ham (which can be left out), topped with a coquettish sprinkle of smoked-paprika breadcrumbs.

I never crave shepherd's pie, even in cold weather, but Tio says she loved the dish at boarding school, so she's keeping Collection's version of it on the menu even as the season changes. I admit that I fell for it; this pie is luscious, with sautéed ground lamb piled on silky mashers dotted with roasted carrots, all smothered in a short-rib au jus reduction.

Not all of the dishes are as generously portioned. A friend of mine complained about her "ladylike" serving of Campo Lindo chicken breast, glazed with a lemon caper sauce and served with a dainty pile of roasted potatoes. He ordered two desserts.

The sweets here are rather on the delicate side as well, but memorable. I like the unexpected spice lurking in the pineapple cheesecake (Sowders slips a hint of cayenne in the glaze). A square of soft almond cake, thickly blanketed with a satiny, coffee-flavored anglaise, would be just as delicious with coffee at 8 a.m. as it was at 8 p.m., after dinner.

I do think that diners will come to Collection, once it grows from that awkward, gawky new-restaurant stage and develops into the sexy urban boîte it wants to be. The components are here: an accessible, appealing menu; attentive service; a curvy and cozy little bar in the center of the room; a small but well-chosen wine list; even its own parking lot, just north of the building. For now, Tio must lure serious diners, not Sprint Center passers-by and business lunchers. But her restaurant concept is so rich in potential that it should find its place at the head of downtown's class.

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