Behind Closed Doors

Technically, the Forest Grill isn’t open for lunch. (Just don’t tell the chef and manager.)
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It was an unexpectedly perfect afternoon. The main door to Forest Grill was locked, but General Manager/Sommelier Joseph Salerno and Chef de Cuisine Nick Janutol were expecting us.

Salerno opened the door wearing a T-shirt and jeans (much different than his normal dinner service attire). Not another customer was in sight as The Talking Heads’ song “This Must be the Place” played over the speakers.

Although Forest Grill stopped offering a lunch menu months ago, Salerno and Janutol are doing what not too many other fine dining restaurants would even consider — continuing to serve food in their off-hours.

Because they are technically closed, they’ve chosen to serve a maximum of four tables a day for lunch. And a small niche of customers have become obsessed with coming back to see what the pair can come up with.

As long you call to give them a heads-up on how many people you’re bringing, you’re in for a truly unforgettable lunch experience.

One thing worth noting: Business that’s normally conducted “behind the curtain” is taking place — deliveries are being dropped off, cooks are prepping for dinner service, etc.

“Most people don’t really care what I’m wearing or the formality of everything; they enjoy us taking care of them,” Salerno says. “This is for the diner who says, ‘Feed me great things, and I’m going to put my day in your hands because you guys know what you’re doing.’”

When you arrive, they ask how many courses you’d like and if anyone has allergies or dietary restrictions. After that, just sit back and see what courses and wine pairings they come up with.

Our party decided on five courses, including dessert.

A peach gazpacho paired with Roussanne started things off. As Salerno described the wine’s earthy, stone fruit notes, Janutol stepped outside to snip some fresh basil to sprinkle on top of the chilled soup. It was beautifully refreshing.

Salerno chatted with us at our table while Janutol went back into the kitchen. He emerged and presented us with the farm egg from their dinner menu. It’s a soft-poached egg wrapped in what almost looked like a bird’s nest, but is actually shredded and crunchy Feuille De Brick, with nameko mushrooms and Madeira sabayon. Incredibly good would be an understatement (we wish Janutol could make us this for breakfast every morning), and paired with a sparkling vouvray.

Next up was angel hair pasta with clam sauce, garlic, onion, and other magical flavors — not too large of a portion. It was paired with a white pinot noir, Sillery from Frecciarossa Estate, that opened up our palates.

Following a main course of halibut in a fumet blanc sauce with English peas and white asparagus, and topped with freshly cut lemon mint, Janutol showed us his small garden on the side of the building and talked about his harvest plans.

Back inside, it was a pleasant surprise to see chef Janutol place new silverware in front of us himself as he served a delicious almond gateaux with pastis ice cream. He also sat down and spoke about memories from his time at New York’s renowned Eleven Madison Park.

A perfect way to end the relaxed, multicourse meal.

“We’re just restaurant people who truly love what we do … we aren’t worried about hard work,” Salerno says.

Just remember to call first so they unlock the door.

Prices for lunch vary depending on number of courses and wine pairings. Forest Grill, 735 Forest Ave., Birmingham; 248-258-9400.

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