Hail to the Chefs

Brian Polcyn and David Gilbert join forces to create zesty, savory dishes at Birmingham’s Forest Grill
Hail to the Chefs
Culinary couple Emily Carlson, assistant manager, and Mario Plaza, general manager/sommelier, at Forest Grill. Photograph by Joe Vaughn

When you put two of Detroit’s most impressive chefs together in a new restaurant, the result ought to be good. And indeed it is.

Add to that combination the calm and elegant design of architect Victor Saroki — who used fogged glass, blond wood, and high-backed chairs of woven hemp rope — and you get Forest Grill in Birmingham, one of the freshest, prettiest, and smartest little upper-end casual restaurants to come along this year.

Forest Grill is the creation of Brian Polcyn, the chef-owner of Five Lakes Grill in Milford and one of the most accomplished chefs in the Detroit area. His executive chef is David Gilbert, previously at Rugby Grille in the Townsend Hotel, where he landed in 2005 after an impressive voyage through some of the most exciting kitchens in France and California.

Forest Grill is very ambitious and has set an extremely high standard. It aims at those who would otherwise travel to New York to eat at Le Bernardin or Per Se, or to Charlie Trotter’s and others in Chicago. Not that it’s trying to be those places. Rather, it wants to bring that level of cuisine to a casual local setting.

Although launching a new restaurant in such turbulent times seems terribly risky, Forest Grill has been regularly packed. When I called for a table in October, two months after it had opened, all that I could get was a 5:30 or 9:30 p.m. booking for the next four days. I called again a week later and was offered much the same. I finally settled for a 5:30 p.m. table. When my booker called for our second visit (under a different name) the best that she could wangle was 6 p.m.

The menu is fairly short: two soups, seven first courses, three salads, 12 main courses, and three pizzas.And there’s a fabulous run of desserts. Everything is made in house, down to the bread, butter, and ice cream. While the restaurant calls itself an American grill, the menu ventures well beyond what you might expect of that description.

Mussels in white wine with twice-fried crunchy Belgian-style frites and a lemon aioli? Oh, my! Venison steak tartare? Tangy, rich, and a delight.

A fat 16-ounce steak listed as Côte du Boeuf, with mushroom ragout and a dense demi-glace is much more French country restaurant than American grill in style. Steak-frites with béarnaise? Ooh-la-la! How American is that?

What’s unique in each dish is the zest in what comes to the table, regardless of how run-of-the mill it may sound on the menu. There is a constant punching up of each dish beyond what you would normally expect. A roasted leg of lamb with merguez (sausage) and white beans is lifted above the traditional by the sweetness of carrots, the earthiness of olive tapenade, and the aromatics of fresh basil.

Likewise, a heavenly first course is a sweet potato agnolotti (those stuffed semicircular pasta pockets known in Italy as “priest hats”) served with sage cream, brown butter, and diced Serrano ham. A Maine lobster risotto with mascarpone comes with basil and black truffle. Oh, the amazing truffle smell as that dish reaches the table! A duck confit with green lentils is crisp-skinned and smoky, perked up with sherry vinegar and lardons.
With two highly accomplished chefs in one restaurant, it seems logical to ask whether there is really room for both, and if this project will truly work.

Gilbert says they discussed just that before joining forces. “This is a kind of changing of the guard,” he says, adding that Polcyn has been slowly moving out of the kitchen and on to other things. “He is in a different place right now,” Gilbert says. “He’s at a place where he is comfortable as the owner and teacher, and he’s looking to help the next generation.”

“There’s a longtime mutual admiration,” Polcyn adds. “I’ve been around 34 years.” He now teaches at Schoolcraft Community College’s culinary program, and he has written a book on charcuterie with Michael Ruhlman, who featured Polcyn in his own 2000 bestseller The Soul of a Chef as one of several who struggled for a master-chef certification.

Polcyn came out of the school of the great über-chef Milos Cihelka, under whom an entire generation of Detroit-area chefs trained at the Golden Mushroom in Southfield, before there was any culinary school of note in this area. Polcyn then cooked at The Lark in West Bloomfield Township, and at Pike Street and Chimayo, both long closed, before launching Five Lakes Grill in the mid-1990s, where he hired a teenage Gilbert for his first restaurant job.

“Milos gave me my start,” Polcyn says. “He was my mentor. Now, I’m giving David his start on his own.” Frankly, the Detroit restaurant scene has been pretty dry since then. Not much has changed.

Although both Polcyn and Gilbert are superb chefs, they cook from their respective experiences, part of which is generational.

Polcyn has always been a thorough technician who produces depth and succulence. His dishes come across complete, savory, and mostly quite traditional. Gilbert cooks in a newer style, heavily dosed with French influences, and his dishes have vivid intensity and flair.

Gilbert attended the Culinary Institute of America (the other CIA) in Hyde Park, N.Y., which led him to a brief stint at the bottom rung of Thomas Keller’s temple of dining, The French Laundry in Napa, Calif., now one of the top restaurants in this country.

Gilbert then went to France, worked for philosopher-chef Michel Bras’ restaurant in Laguiole, the southwestern town that produces those pointed dinner-table knives with horn blades. He also found himself in San Sebastián, Spain, in the kitchen of Martin Berasategui, who has become internationally renowned for his outrageously unusual dishes, a kind of Jackson Pollack of chefs.

But it was at L’Astrance in Paris, with hot new chef-showman Pascal Barbot, who had made his name at the famed Arpège, where Gilbert moved ahead.

L’Astrance — known for its surprise dishes (strange combinations of whatever the chef decides) — got its first star from the Guide Michelin in 2001 and a second in 2005, by which time Gilbert was its chef-de-cuisine.

On a visit home from France that year, Gilbert heard that the Rugby Grille in the Townsend Hotel was looking for a chef. He got the job. “He is a solid, solid cook,” Polcyn says.

So far, the blend of Polcyn and Gilbert is working pretty seamlessly into the menu. “He and I are fundamentally the same.” Polcyn says. “Sauté is sauté. And grill is grill. That’s what American cooking is. It’s good and simple.”

Polcyn’s charcuteries are featured as a first course, all delightful, at Forest Grill. On occasion, Gilbert will add his own touch here and there, such as a smoky rolled rabbit loin, on a recent visit.

One dish that struck me as very Pascal Barbot-like (Gilbert insists it could be any of his mentors) on the menu was the diver scallops, seared to a golden brown and served atop a ragout of cauliflower florets, cauliflower mousse, raisins, capers, and aged balsamic vinegar. Harmonious and dense, it left us shocked at how well the unlikely combination of ingredients came together. (Barbot does a seared scallop dish with a chestnut broth and chunks of chestnut.)

“I’ve always worked to understand the chef I’m with, whether it’s Thomas Keller or Bras or Barbot,” Gilbert says. “They all taught me about flavors and the flavor profile in food. And that’s one thing I’m always trying to develop even more here.”

Forest Grill is still in its infancy, but if there’s one word that summarizes the restaurant, it’s “balance.” It has a balance between service and food that’s near perfect. There’s an overall balance in the menu from item to item. And there’s also a balance between the food, the look, and the feel of the restaurant — the spacing of the tables, the level of lighting, and the selection of music. Everything meshes with everything else. Nothing is out of kilter here. All of which adds up to harmonious dining.

735 Forest Ave., Birmingham; 248-258-9400. L & D Mon.-Fri., D only on Sat.

Cook is the chief restaurant critic of Hour Detroit. E-mail: editorial@hourdetroit.com.