Call of the Forest

Executive chef Nick Janutol’s menu at reimagined Birmingham restaurant is brimming with originality

The old saying “may you live in interesting times,” can certainly apply to the restaurant business around here. New eateries have opened, older ones have closed, and others have changed hands.

The latter is what happened to Birmingham’s stalwart Forest Grill late last year. Renamed simply Forest by its new owners, it has a newly promoted executive chef, a new menu, and a new interior.

The owners are a group led by Samy Eid, whose father, Sameer, is the creator of what must surely be the longest, continuously operating upper-end Lebanese spot in the metro area, Phoenicia on Woodward Avenue in Birmingham, which got it start in Highland Park in the 1970s.

The elder Eid, known for his signature swooping white moustache, still presides over Phoenicia; but his son is general manager of both restaurants.

“We signed the papers for Forest in June 2015,” says Samy Eid, “and closed it soon after that. The renovation took from July to November, and we opened as Forest on November 9th.”

The original Forest Grill was created by chef-owner, Brian Polcyn, who came to fame in 1995 at his Five Lakes Grill in Milford. He also did stints at The Lark and Golden Mushroom.

At Forest Grill, Polcyn appointed David Gilbert as his chef, a French-trained young talent who is now the chef-owner at Marais in Grosse Pointe. Today, Polcyn is one of the main professors at the Schoolcraft College culinary arts program.

Forest Grill came into the market at a time of change, a time when restaurants knew that they had to catch a new wave of younger diners who wanted high-end food in a relaxed, casual, and elegant setting.

Out went starched table linens and the formal waiter in a bow tie and dinner jacket. The Villeroy & Bosch china went into storage in favor of various shapes of nameless white Japanese crockery.

The upgrade from Forest Grill to Forest also took it from the sleek woody look and feel that architect Victor Saroki originally gave it eight years ago to a more contemporary feel.

And who better to take on the next round of remodeling than Saroki himself?

The renovated Forest includes stylish, round, milky filigree glass chandeliers, which add a pleasant warmth to the richness of the dark wood flooring. Blue-gray base colors are solid and eye-pleasing.

Everything in the restaurant is new. Saroki picked stylish, round, milky filigree glass chandeliers, which add a pleasant warmth to the richness of the dark wood flooring.

This new version also has a calm, passive feel to it, with solid and eye-pleasing blue-gray base colors. The big glass storefront window panels that face the street remain as they were, and lend an air of spaciousness to the interior, in addition to opening up in warmer weather as patio doors onto the sidewalk for additional open-air dining.

The food at Forest has been bumped up several notches in complexity and seriousness, as well, with a totally new menu that lands somewhere north of casual dining, but stops short of fine dining.

Polcyn’s former chef de cuisine Nick Janutol has stayed on with the new owners, and is working to upscale the menu, moving it away from the style of “grill” and in the direction to fine dining, but without quite hitting that cap.

Left: Short ribs come wrapped inside rolled pasta with butternut squash and grilled onions. Right: Forest offers a number of small plates, including scallops on a bed of lentils.

Like so many newer restaurants, Forest stresses its search for fresh, locally grown and raised vegetables and meats. Janutol’s menu is very brief, but designed to let the kitchen assemble punch-packing sharp flavors from various farm and market ingredients used in each dish he composes.

The menu is a blend of a few items considered today as “must-haves” on many progressive menus, but at Forest they sit alongside several refreshing dishes, brimming with originality.

So that while kale salad, beet salad, and a house salad are fairly common and not likely to stir a lot of juices, a salad of Brussels sprouts with feta cheese is certainly more intriguing.

Janutol adds twists such as a delightful risotto of butternut squash and anchovy butter, and a starter of grilled octopus, thinly sliced and dressed with fennel, preserved lemon, and shallot.

An even greater delight was the pasta Bolognese, which was just marvelous. It is made with smoked bacon and pork and comes on a flat noodle — and is without doubt one of the most delicious pastas I’ve had in a restaurant in years. Deep and creamy with a little background tang, this dish is delicately round and savory, tickling harmony of flavor and texture that would make an Italian grandmother smile.

And then there is the wonderfully understated “Farm Egg.” It arrived peeking out of a small, round basket-like crust on a plate, beside which sat an assortment of sautéed wood mushrooms resting on a creamy yellow sabayon. An aroma wafted from the dish: a sweet, slightly dusky and concentrated woody prune fragrance of warmed Spanish Madeira.

I punched the middle of the egg with a fork, and the wobbly white parted to unleash a runny yolk, which instantly flooded and overran the pastry and settled in the sabayon and medley of mushrooms.

Ooooh! Very satisfying eating.

Another terrific dish was luscious plump roasted chicken that arrived sitting on a small bed of Swiss chard surrounded by the juices of the hen and sautéed wood mushrooms.

The brief menu lets the kitchen assemble punch-packing sharp flavors from various farm and market ingredients.

The menu also includes strip steak with a bordelaise sauce, a lamb shank with a chickpea ragout, and duck breast with salsify and apricot.

The only flaw we experienced all evening was a piece of overcooked skate, the north Atlantic fish.

Beyond that, Forest is a terrific “new” restaurant. It’s heartening to see the enjoyment and excitement of a new eatery coming together. Forest has a lot of spirit, which is the first step toward success and hopefully longevity.

Interestingly, ownership turnovers in restaurants more often fail than succeed. I can think of several examples of good restaurants that didn’t benefit from the change. In this case, the new décor and new menu make Forest a very different restaurant. And there is every reason to believe it will be around a long time.

735 Forest Ave., Birmingham; 248-258-9400 D Mon.-Sat.

Cook is Hour Detroit’s chief restaurant critic.