Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Birmingham Restaurant Week: Forest Grill

Birmingham Restaurant Week is happening now through February did a little skip-de-loo over the weekend so technically it ran Feb. 1-5, then picked up again for the 8-12. For some reason I was convinced it ran through Valentine's Day weekend, but I was wrong. How crazy would THAT be, anyway? $25 for Valentine's Dinner at the Rugby Grille? BET!

(On a side note, I wonder what they would offer for that pricing? My guess is salmon and short ribs. Ooooooh, lookey that. AND they're the exception to the $25 pricing by charging $35 for their Restaurant Week prix fixe dinner! Tsk tsk tsk. Oh, Birmingam.)

Birmingham Restaurant Week was super-well promoted, too, what with the article in Hometown Life and no website and all. *cough*

Well, anyway. I've been meaning to try Forest Grill in Birmingham for over a year now, as I've been curious to see what Chef Brian Polcyn has been up to at his latest venture, which already received the prestigious recognition of being Hour Detroit's "Restaurant of the Year" for 2009.

If you're an about-town foodie, the name Brian Polcyn should certainly ring a bell. But I will give you a quick Culinary Cliff Notes all the same.

Polcyn trained under the world-renowned Certified Master Chef Milos Cihelka at the Golden Mushroom, blessed be thine name. He also worked at the Lark and opened the acclaimed Pike Street in Pontiac before eventually making his way out to Milford to open the nationally-recognized Five Lakes Grill, which showcased his talents as a charcuterie expert (which refers to the art of salting, smoking, and curing of meats). He has won numerous awards, has been featured in publications all across America, has himself been published, and has also garnered a few James Beard Award nominations (though has yet to see a win...that's okay, it's an honor just to be nominated. Really!). He opened Forest Grill in the summer of 2008 (and has since transformed his old bread-and-butter Five Lakes Grill into Cinco Lagos, a more accessible restaurant serving handmade upscale Mexican cuisine), once again to much immediate acclaim.

The great thing about Restaurant Weeks is that they are a fantastic way to explore new restaurants without breaking the bank. The crappy thing about Restaurant Weeks is that they are a terrible way to introduce a new restaurant. Forest Grill was no exception.

The Charcuterie Assortment De Jour has been calling my name, so even despite the prix fixe menu I insisted on this (luckily my dining partner didn't put up much of a fight there). This is, after all, what Polcyn is known for.

Mmmmmmmm-meat. Salute, salumi! Prosciutto, ham, salame...served with a bunch of other stuff (olives, cornichons) we didn't touch. More meat for the meat-eaters, please! The Charcuterie did not disappoint--and I would highly recommend the Prosciutto de Birmingham with white truffle oil--though I naturally would have enjoyed it infinitely more had there been a big slab of Bra Duro or Pecorino Toscana on the side (cheese). Ah, well. (Note: There is a assortment of cheeses available on the dessert menu.)

The prix fixe Restaurant Week menu ($15 for lunch, $25 for dinner) includes three courses with choices for each. The first course was a choice of Tomato Bisque en Croute or a Baby Heirloom Beet Salad with warm goat cheese, candied walnuts, and petite organic lettuce. My partner and I split the ballot here, with me opting for the salad and she for the soup. The flaky, chewy crust smelled like heaven as it came out, which is lucky: the soup itself tasted like marinara sauce. I'm not even kidding you. Marinara sauce. For confirmation I sought the opinion of another well-versed chef...marinara sauce.

The beet salad was much better, and I did particularly enjoy the fried goat cheese with the slightly bitter greens and the tart vinegar reduction. Granted, I could have just ate them like tater tots, but that's not the point.

The second course was a choice between Lake Superior Whitefish with lemon, capers, artichokes, haricot vert, potato puree, and a tomato confit butter sauce or Veal Cheeks with Parisian herb & Ricotta cheese gnocchi, wilted spinach, and tomato. What do you think I chose?

Disappointment, is what. Well, not really. It was a perfectly tasty dish. Quite good, even. But for this place? Disappointing. I'll let you in on a little secret: veal cheeks taste just like short ribs. Ah, short ribs, old friend, how've you been? Can't seem to get enough of you on a prix fixe menu. *sigh* It was certainly tender with lots of flavor, a rich broth, the gnocchi was good, parmesan added flavor...but overall, I was underwhelmed. This is certainly not their "A" game.

Also, the portions were exceptionally small--which is fine; I'd rather pay less money for less food and not take anything home to sit in my fridge and grow mold, but I'm sure plenty of other people would take issue with that. Besides, if the portions are going to be smaller, I would expect the offerings to be more varied. In other words, don't offer me the cheapest things on your menu AND give me less of or the other, people.

This is where they win: the desserts. Ohdeargod, the desserts. I can't seem to find any information on the pastry chef either on their menus or on the website, which means either the pastry chef has gone entirely uncredited (I feel bad for pastry chefs...they are SO the red-headed stepchildren of the culinary world), or Executive Chef David McHotty Gilbert is pulling double-duty. Regardless, the desserts are pure divinity.

Take the Brioche Bread Pudding with chocolate pistols, creme anglaise, and Tahitian Vanilla Bean ice cream: dense, gooey, decadent. But it had nothing on the Chocolate Pot de Creme.

Such a demure-looking little dish, so polite. Our server Joseph liked to say it with a British accent--I liked him! Yes, it is by all appearances a chaste finale. Until you taste it: the closest I have experienced to having a thousand angels dancing on my tounge since The Egg at Tribute. Think of the flavor of a rich chocolate souffle, and then make it the consistency of a thick custard. It has no comparison. Absolutely sinful, wholly divine.

I may not recommend Forest Grill for their Restaurant Week menu, but I look forward to sampling more of their regular menu. They have a full raw bar as well as clay-oven-baked pizzas (the Pizza Prosciutto with prosciutto, baby arugula, asiago cheese, and truffle oil taunts me), and a variety of cross-disciplinary items best described as "contemporary bistro." The Hudson Valley Foie Gras Torchon is apparently a specialty of David McHotty Gilbert (I love foie gras and I am at peace with that); other highlights include a Cider-Glazed Sweetbread Risotto, Cassoulet Toulousain (made with garlic sausage, pork belly, and duck confit), Bone Marrow & Confit of Pork, and the classic 14-oz. Cote Du Boeuf (for only $29, which I found surprising...guessing it's not a 30-day dry-aged cut from Neiman Ranch). The Parmesan Creamed Spinach side also sounds like a win, and the Tres Leches cake with Sassafras-infused egg nog has me curious. Yes, yes--the regular menu merits further investigation. It's a shame most restaurants don't have more manueverability with such fixed pricing.

Forest Grill is probably best described as a contemporary American bistro with influences from French and Italian cooking traditions and an emphasis on "clean lines"--simple dishes that highlight the flavors of the ingredients, focused on utilizing locally-sourced seasonal products with a commitment to sustainable cuisine and greening initiatives. The interior is bright, crisp, and clean...simple yet elegant, free of anything flashy but still very sleek.

One of the highlights of this particular experience was the wine list, which I was most impressed by. Sommelier Mario Plaza has put together a list of some of the best varietals from around the world, de-emphasizing the pedigree of labels and organized not by country or region but by style and impression. This is probably one of the most intriguingly-orchestrated wine lists I've ever seen, and receives even more accolades for offering wines not only by the bottle and glass, but also by taste--so if you'd like just a little more wine but not another full glass, you can order a 3-oz. taste (about half a glass) for about half the price. Bloody brilliant idea.

My favorite categorization is "So You Like Big Cabernet But It's Time for a Change--Intense Reds: Cabernet Franc, Touriga Nacional, Nebbiolo, Aglianico." True story. Never have I seen France, Portugal, and Italy play so nicely together. Judging solely by the exquisite attention to detail apparent on this wine list, Mr. Plaza is a true wine lover's wine lover. Unimpressed by big-name producers, he tends towards smaller boutique producers that crank out interesting, eclectic wines. The Trimbach Gewurztraminer from the Alsace region of France that I had speaks to this: a complex crispness with notes of exotic fruits that would pair just as well with Thai food as with stinky blue-veined cheeses. If the wine list is any kind of indication of what I can expect from the regular menu, I eagerly anticipate my return.

And you know how reluctant I am to ever travel to the 'burbs.