It took a good deal of courage to open an upscale restaurant in Birmingham just as Michigan's economy was plummeting toward nether regions not seen since the Depression. That is what confronted Brian Polcyn when his stylish bistro made its debut in August, on Forest Avenue, one block south of Maple, on the unlikely east side of Woodward Avenue. To judge by the difficulty in getting reservations at the Forest Grill, there are still enough deep-pocketed foodies around to justify Polcyn's confidence in the resilience of the U.S. economy.
It helps, of course, that he is one of our most celebrated chefs, with a pedigree that goes back to Milos Cihelka of the fabled Golden Mushroom, and star turns in the kitchens of Pike Street, Chimayo and, currently, the Five Lakes Grill. His executive chef's résumé is equally impressive. David Gilbert apprenticed at Michelin-starred restaurants in France and Spain as well as at Napa Valley's French Laundry, and more recently was in charge of the kitchen at the Rugby Grille in Birmingham's Townsend Hotel. Mario Plaza, formerly general manager at the Grille, came along with Gilbert as general manager-sommelier.
The Forest Grill is on the ground floor of a new multi-use, especially "green," three-story building created by prize-winning architect Victor Saroki. The handsome, long, narrow room, with huge windows and a bustling open kitchen, seats only 65 at its white-clothed tables and lively bar. The absence of butcher-block paper on those thick tablecloths and the price structure suggests "bistro plus," with the main genuflection to the genre being the service of a warm mini bread loaf in a napkin rather than an elaborate bread basket.
On the other hand, the hearty bowl of French onion soup ($8), thick with onions and melted cheese and a bit on the sweet side, is redolent of Les Halles. Another starter, which might please two or more, is the charcuterie du jour platter ($18), with exquisite smoked meats, sturdy housemade mustard, and three choice mini-salads including heirloom beets and goat cheese. Polcyn's specialty is charcuterie, which he teaches at Schoolcraft College's culinary school and which is highlighted in the grill by the huge porcine sculpture on its kitchen wall.
Another starter to share could be a clay-oven-baked pizza ($16) such as the thin-crusted beauty overloaded with sweet Italian sausage and a creamy Pecorino Toscano cheese. Among other hot appetizers are crab cakes, mussels and frites and the popular duck confit.
The mains, most of which hover around $28, are anchored by an admirable steak-frites platter, with a thick strip rather than hanger or flat-iron steak, plus abundant skinny, crunchy fries. The savory and tender slab of meat, like other entrée portions, is slightly undersized but that is one way to keep them below the daunting $30 barrier.
Another pleasing dish is the Berkshire pork loin, thin slices of meat, perhaps a little fatty, but nicely adorned with warm green apples and red cabbage, along with a cippolini onion, all of which rests gently in a subtle port-wine reduction.
Aside from a daily vegetarian entrée, the hearty late-fall menu features the rarely-seen-in-these-parts veal cheeks with spinach and ricotta gnocchi, Norwegian salmon with citrus-braised radicchio in a saffron vanilla sauce, and roasted leg of lamb with sausage, white and green beans, basil pesto and an olive tapenade. Gilbert's kitchen is quite imaginative with the tasteful garnishes that accompany the meat or fish.
Starches are absent from most platters. If you must have potatoes or macaroni and cheese they are available as sides at an additional fee. Speaking of fees, two "Bistro Classics," côte de boeuf with wild mushroom ragout and bouillabaisse are the most costly items on the menu at $34.
Forest Grill is a mecca for oenophiles. A handful of bottles on the lengthy and eclectic list, often from relatively obscure producers, are asterisked to signify "a wine we think you 'gotta' try." Ignoring the Palinism, this may lead you to a Rueda for $24, a Vinho Verde for $35 or, gulp, a California merlot for $115. Even better, almost all of the wines are not only available by the 5-ounce glass but also by the 2-ounce taste, which permits a good deal of experimentation, even for those doing the driving.
As for dessert, it is difficult to pass up the warm chocolate cake, stuffed with chocolate mousse, which comes with contrapuntally cool vanilla-bean ice cream, pistachios and cherries. This sweet mélange can be washed down with an impressive, if not surprisingly pricey, array of sweet and fortified wines.
The service, as one might expect in a Polcyn restaurant, is highly professional and attentive, although I was a bit surprised in such an elegant setting to have one busboy ask, "Are you still working on it?" That all-too-common query conjures up images of diners sawing away ungracefully at their meals.
But that is a minor quibble considering the high quality and even the cost-benefit ratio of the overall dining experience at the Forest Grill. One can only hope that we will soon climb out of this dreadful financial hole so that more of us will be able to splurge at one of Oakland County's more fashionable temples of gastronomy.
Mel Small teaches history at Wayne State University. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.