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 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.
Its subtle exterior masks an ambitious restaurant that doesn’t take expedient shortcuts. Everything is housemade, even the mustard served with the charcuterie that is one of Polcyn’s hallmarks. In fact, he teaches a course in charcuterie at Schoolcraft College, and is co-author of a book on the subject of the ancient art of curing meats titled Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing.
Forest Grill takes just one day off a week: Sunday. Lunch is served weekdays, and dinner Monday through Saturday.
The handsome single-page menus, printed on crisp, recycled paper, are subtitled “Cooking what nature provides,” in appropriate green lettering. That sentiment is also inscribed on the blackboard between the bar and the kitchen, underscoring the commitment to fresh, high-quality ingredients.
The charcuterie platter is offered at both times of day, and it is a true house specialty, including — along with the rosy, translucent slices of soppressata, salami, and prosciutto di Parma — a choice of three accompaniments.
They are chosen from a list that includes marinated olives, celeriac-and-rémoulade salad, the tiny tart pickles called cornichons, heirloom beet salad, and carrot-and-garbanzo salad, each presented in a tiny portion on the rectangular wooden tray.
It’s a tremendously appealing assortment, as is the appetizer of tuna tartare, glistening little ruby morsels of ahi tuna, with trimmings of olive tapenade, tomato confit, guacamole, and paper-thin chips made in-house from heirloom fingerling potatoes.
Although the menu fits on a single page, it offers great variety, from luxurious lobster bisque topped with golden puff pastry to house-smoked salmon with crème fraîche, and chestnut agnolotti — ravioli-style pasta with parsnip purée, shaved chestnuts and a satiny emulsion of chestnuts and mascarpone. It’s as rich and satisfying as it is unexpected.
And unexpected combinations abound, including veal cheeks, roasted bone marrow, and confit of pork, along with classically simple presentations such as steamed mussels, steak frites, and clay-roasted chicken. Bouillabaisse, made with mussels, scallops, shrimp, clams, crabmeat, and lobster, is another staple on the menu.
The popular lobster taco that was among the appetizers when the place opened has been replaced with lobster risotto, but may return, since the choices are regularly updated and varied.
The menu changes with the seasons and the availability of fresh ingredients, but it retains its basic personality, and the eclectic wine list is in harmony with it.
Sommelier Mario Plaza is particularly adept at pairing the appropriate wine with a chosen dish. A native of Santiago, Chile, who grew up in Shreveport, La., Plaza presides over a list that includes many lesser-known wines along with the big names. Another nice feature is that guests may order a 2-ounce tasting portion as well as a 5-ounce glass of many of the wines on the extensive list.
Pointing up the ensemble nature of Forest Grill, Plaza’s assistant, Emily Carlson, started as a server, but was quickly promoted by Polcyn, who is never far from his role as teacher.
“What I teach is care and passion,” says Polcyn, who much prefers attitude over experience in his staff. “And the sound principles of good cooking. Good cooking comes from the heart and soul; you have to feel it.
“It’s hard,” he says. “It takes dedication and being tenacious about it, and you are only as good as the last meal served.”
Forest Grill, 735 Forest Ave., Birmingham; 248-258-9400, theforestgrill.com. L&D Mon.-Fri., D only on Sat.
Along with the Forest Grill restaurant and office space, the building at 735 Forest in Birmingham’s Triangle District includes lofts. Five of the original 10 remain available, and they have been newly outfitted by metro Detroit interior designers.
The designers include:
- Robert Endres, of Jones Keena and Co., Birmingham.
- Kristen Catto Armstrong and Katie Saracino, of KCID Studio, Birmingham.
- Diane Hancock, of Diane Hancock Designs, White Lake Township.
- Ellen LeTourneau, of Elevate Your Life, Bloomfield Hills, and Emily Maccombs, of Evolve Design, Waterford Township.
- Ann Heath, of Duncan Fuller Interiors, Birmingham.
A Green Urban Living Event on the weekend of March 5-8 will showcase the newly designed lofts. (Public hours are Friday, 1-7 p.m., and Saturday/Sunday, 1-4 p.m.)
Lofts range in size from 763 to 2,200 square feet, with prices starting at $1,500 to lease, $299,000 to buy.
Information: 888-877-5638, 735forest.com.
1. A staff meal is an everyday occurrence at Forest Grill. Employees taste new menu items and discuss pairings with wine selections.
2. A charcuterie assortment.
3. Brian Polcyn with a variety of meats. He’s the co-author of a book on the craft of charcuterie.
4. A vintage meat slicer. All meats at the restaurant are hand-sliced.
5. A place setting shows attention to detail.