Enchanted Forest

Forest Grill: 2009 Restaurant of the Year

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David Gilbert (left) and Brian Polcyn discuss seasonal menu changes.
Photographs by Joe Vaughn

Like a director putting together a repertory theater ensemble, Brian Polcyn staffs the kitchen of the Forest Grill with people who are talented enough to take on a variety of roles and fill them seamlessly.

They switch positions regularly, moving from station to station, learning to be proficient with the grill, the clay oven, the sauté pans, the salads, and pastries, in the time-tested fashion of the classic European kitchen.

That’s rare in America, but it’s typical of the style of Polcyn, whose Forest Grill is Hour Detroit’s 2009 Restaurant of the Year.

While there’s nothing self-consciously trendy about Forest Grill, it does tap into what many diners seek today: sharable appetizers, seasonal fare that incorporates local ingredients, and interesting, affordable wines by the glass.

It has the added — and frankly hip — element of being planet-friendly. Part of the Forest Grill story is the green design of the contemporary space it occupies. The mixed-use building houses business offices, residential lofts, and the restaurant, of course. The space has an open attitude, with expansive windows that expose the indoor action to the surrounding walkable neighborhood, one that also is a blend of commercial and domestic uses. In short, Forest Grill manages to be both traditional and contemporary.

The classic underpinnings begin with the man at the helm. After 34 years in the business, Polcyn, who was once the kid “looking at my shoes” and saying “Yes, chef” to his mentor, Milos Cihelka (of Golden Mushroom fame), is now the senior adviser to this young, up-and-coming ensemble. And that extends even to the well-schooled executive chef, David Gilbert, himself once an apprentice at Polcyn’s Five Lakes Grill in Milford before going off to the Culinary Institute of America and stints in Michelin-starred restaurants in Europe and a short stay in California.

The two kept in touch over the years, and when the Forest Grill project came up, it was at the point when Gilbert was ready to leave The Townsend Hotel in Birmingham, where he had been Rugby Grille chef since 2005.

“I’m opening a bistro in Birmingham,” Polcyn recalls telling him, and when Gilbert reacted with surprise to the news, Polcyn kiddingly chided him, saying, “You ought to read the paper once in a while, knucklehead!”

Gilbert quickly came on board, and brought Townsend sommelier/general manager Mario Plaza along with him.

The two chefs are “a great fit,” Polcyn says. “What Milos did for me, I do for him. He’s a very strong cook, but he’s respectful. He treats me with high regard and respect,” although the relationship is more egalitarian than the master/apprentice dynamic of Cihelka’s European kitchen.

The two “talk every day,” says Gilbert, who has full direction of the menu. “We really like talking about food, and ideas we both have.”
Forest Grill opened last August, just as Five Lakes Grill was celebrating its 13th anniversary. This latest venture was certainly not the first expansion opportunity Polcyn had been offered. “I would get four or five opportunities a year,” he says. “And I always said no.” What attracted him to the Birmingham project was what he calls the “passion and honesty and vision” of the owners of 735 Forest. Also, the timing was right personally, since his youngest child was 13 and family responsibilities were getting lighter.

The "Grand Plateau" from the raw bar: Lobster, shrimp, oysters, and mussels.

The restaurant is on the first floor of the 735 Building in Birmingham’s Triangle District (east of Woodward Avenue and south of Maple Road).

The Grill’s spare, completely unfussy setting — finished in smooth blond wood, expanses of windows, and a discreet use of beveled mirrors — was designed by the building’s architect and co-owner, Victor Saroki. The space exudes a certain calm, despite the open kitchen in the center of the room and the typically capacity crowd seated at linen-covered tables and in the narrow bar.

Part of that is surely the sound-muffling aspect. Forest Grill doesn’t echo with conversation-stifling din even when the 65-seat room is full, thanks to the advanced technology that’s noticeable in many ways throughout the energy-efficient building.

The three-story structure is unobtrusively integrated into its quiet residential neighborhood, away from the busier downtown Birmingham scene.

That in itself attracted Polcyn, who, as he wryly comments, has chosen offbeat restaurant locations before. His Pike Street and Chimayo Restaurants were in Pontiac, a place not known as a restaurant center, and Acadia was in the far reaches of Auburn Hills, albeit across from The Palace of Auburn Hills.

When he decided to settle near home and help raise his family of five with his wife, Julia, he closed Acadia and chose a vintage storefront on Milford’s small-town Main Street for the out-of-the-mainstream location of Five Lakes Grill.

“I’ve always done things against the grain,” he says. “People found me in Milford, and they should be able to find me east of Woodward.”
And find him they have. Forest Grill, which he modestly describes as a “neighborhood bistro,” has been a hit since its quiet summer opening — without so much as a sign to let people know it existed.

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