When Forest Grill closed after a seven-year run under the esteemed Brian Polcyn, new owner Samy Eid vowed to breathe new life into it, starting at its heart: the kitchen. Eid, a longtime Birmingham restaurateur, wanted to create a space that felt lighter not only in its menu program, but also in the vessel in which the chefs prepared each meal.
That meant breaking down everything that the award-winning retired chef-owner had previously built and starting anew — this time simply as Forest. Most notable when you enter the sleek, minimalist space is the fishbowl, window-enclosed kitchen, where diners are treated to a front-row seat to watch the kitchen staff at work, led by chef Nick Janutol.
Diners watch as Janutol intently grates Parmesan into a bowl of house-made pasta and when he interacts with his crew. His wife, the restaurant's general manager Allicia, pops in every now and then to strategize. There's a calm ambience in the kitchen at Forest. Everyone serves an equally important purpose, no matter if they're a line cook or the executive and everyone pitches in to make the operation run seamlessly. It appears as if they're leisurely preparing a meal to be shared between friends.
Don't let that apparent ease fool you into thinking they're just messing around. Indeed, in the three months since Janutol has been at the helm, his cooking has caught the attention of what's considered to be the Oscars of the food world. Last month, he was among three local chefs to be nominated for the coveted James Beard Awards. He was named a semifinalist for best chef in the Great Lakes region. The Culinary Institute of America graduate was among 20 semifinalists to be recognized in the category. Eid tells us he would be lying if he says he wasn't surprised to learn of the nod.
After stopping into the Triangle District eatery just outside of downtown, we have a hunch as to why the James Beard committee took notice of Janutol. Guests are made to feel welcome the moment they step inside, and it's because of a team effort by the staff. You're just as likely to be greeted by Allicia Janutol or Eid as you are any other member of the front-of-the-house staff.
There's not a bad seat to be had in the Victor Saroki-designed space, as the tables are set either surrounding the spacious kitchen, next to a vast, glass-encased wine display, or alongside the wall of windows, offering a ground-level view of the streetscape. The mood is decidedly intimate, with soft lighting and little in the way of loud decor. The bone white china, silverware, and large wine glasses are neatly set atop linen-covered tables — all giving an air of quiet refinement.
Servers are gracious, quick to take your drink order, and come prepared with personal menu recommendations.
While Polcyn's Forest Grill was known for his renowned charcuterie and farm-to-table offerings, the menu is lighter under Eid and Janutol and has more of a Middle Eastern flair. It's a nod to Eid's Lebanese roots and to his other venture, Phoenicia, also in Birmingham.
The first thing you'll be offered at Forest is fresh, rustic bread and butter while you mull over the menu, which is broken up by small plates, pasta made in-house, and entrees. In keeping with the Mediterranean vibe, the menu plays heavy on seafood dishes. We tried a meaty appetizer of octopus to start, with a fennel, preserved lemon, and shallot garnish. The slightly sweet shallots were perfectly grilled, as was the tangy octopus — all delivered simply, yet elegantly. For a comforting, rich balance, the risotto, prepared with butternut squash and anchovy, delighted the taste buds. We were thrilled by both the presentation and the execution of the carrot soup. It was poured out of a silver kettle into a bowl that was already garnished with wide ribbons of pickled carrots. The soup was rich and earthy, with subtle hints of ginger, but never heavy. The duck confit, with parsnip, figs, and port wine, intrigued us with its sweet, crunchy, caramelized skin.
Our favorite among the entrees was the aged, 16-ounce New York strip with Bordelaise sauce and home fries. Sometimes, when we get a fatty cut of meat in a restaurant, we finding ourselves discarding much of the fat and settling for an underwhelming portion of lean protein that's left. At Forest, the cut was the right balance of both and was overall quite juicy and flavorful. The home fries, served with a house-made ketchup, were seriously sturdy, with a nicely fried skin. We gladly dug in using a fork and knife.
The bronzino came out with the most amazing, crispy outside and wonderfully tender white meat inside. It was paired with a hearty, nutty, yet refreshingly light side of quinoa, pine nuts, and pomegranate.
Some near-home runs included the Vongole pasta, with Manila clams and an anchovy butter sauce — a bit on the oily side, but no less delicious, with the freshness of the pasta shining through. The lamb shank had a bit of Mediterranean flair, but had our dining guest wanting just a tad more oomph.
As for beverages, Forest boasts a 1,000-bottle wine cellar, which is partially on prominent display near the front door, and for cocktail lovers, the bar prepares a few house specials. The eatery has an in-house pastry chef behind the dessert menu. At the recommendation of our server, we tried the coconut mousse, which came out in a whimsical tiny mountain made of macaroon snowcaps, glorious, pink guava jelly, and a light sable cookie foundation.
Eid came to Forest at a time when Polcyn was ready to hang up his apron, at least as a chef-owner, following nearly 30 years in that role. He left behind a legacy brand, but one that needed refining and updating. With careful orchestration by Eid, the Janutols, and the rest of the team, that challenge has made promising strides in just a few months' time.
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