Planning my trip to Michigan not only to see the Frozen Four but also to celebrate my mother and aunt's respective birthdays I knew I wanted to take them somewhere special - I considered The Lark, Coach Insignia, The Michael Mina spots at the MGM, and others - I considered them until I read two outstanding reviews of Chef Polcyn's Forest Grill and the current work of Executive Chef David Gilbert. A review of the restaurant's website impressed me even more as I discovered the two Michigan born Chef's had collectively cooked all across Michigan's best restaurants and trained at a restaurants ranging from The French Laundry to L’Astrance and Michel Bras - heavy hitters to say the least.
Attempting to keep my expectations in check given their billing as a "simple American bistro that uses quality local ingredients and is rooted in traditional cooking techniques" I browsed the online menu which ranged from charcuterie to bistro fare to pizzas and spans multiple regions of Europe - identifying no less than 10 items that sounded great to me and a number that would fit the less adventurous palate of my family I called and made reservations, the receptionist ever helpful and pleasant...and pleasant again when I called to change the reservation due to alterations in the hockey schedule.
Arriving just moments before our reservation, early in the dinner hour, after wandering the lovely city of Birmingham for quite some time I was immediately taken by the modern interior, large windows viewing the street, and open kitchen and raw bar, and white tablecloths - almost a hybrid of sexy/modern and intimate/bistro - neighborhood, but formal. Greeted by our hostess and led to a nice table in the middle of the main dining room we were next met by our server, Tim, who explained to us the various parts of the menu, the available tasting menus, and the oysters plus charcuterie selections. Knowledgeable of the entire menu and ready to make recommendations, formal but down to earth, witty and pleasant I must say I found Tim to be the ideal waiter, akin to what I've experienced at TFL, Per Se, or Alinea. Plates were delivered with ample descriptions, beverages and bread refilled as if by an invisible hand, both our table and those around us had little to want - seriously first-rate service.
After some discussion of the menu both my mother and aunt opted for an appetizer and a main while I personally selected two appetizers as for the first course and two appetizers for the second course – though Tim offered to bring them out as four courses I suggested bringing them two at a time would be fine as we had plans for the game following. Happy to comply Tim said four appetizers would likely be a lot of food – but then added that my selections were excellent and that he (a thin and healthy looking fellow) could easily handle it. Striding away to the kitchen we were left to our drinks and conversation while the bar quickly filled up and many tables became occupied with well dressed couples.
Arriving moments after our orders were placed was a buttery loaf of sesame and poppy seed bread along with a creamy unsalted butter featuring pleasant grassy tones. Served piping hot and half-sliced we happily tore the bread into chunks and buttered it – each of us were impressed and the first loaf went quickly only to be replaced just as rapidly with a second. Crispy and golden outside, fluffy and airy within – a beautiful loaf of bread that I had to temper my consumption of given the total of the day’s gluttony.
Approximately 35 minutes had passed before our first courses arrived – for mom and aunt a salad and soup, respectively. For aunt, the Tomato Bisque En Croute was her selection and similar to the presentation at Bistro Jeanty in Yountville the dish was a hefty tomato soup served in a puffed pastry. Less rich and less buttery than the version out west I will note I actually preferred the soup at Forest Grill, but the pastry dome just didn’t stand up (literally) to the puff or buttery deliciousness of Jeanty’s classic. Overall it would be hard to make a call on which I preferred overall, but aunt loved it and that is what matters most.
For my mother, somewhat full from the day of carbs, her selection came as a surprise as she ordered the Heirloom Beet Salad with Warm Goat's Cheese, Candied Walnuts, and Petit Organic Lettuce. Mildly flavored with only a splash of balsamic I feel this was one of those salads where the whole was greater than the sum of its parts – mild baked cheese married with sweet and crunchy walnuts, heavy and sweet beets mellowed by the savory balsamic, crispy lettuce for texture. Unfortunately for this salad there was simply too much beet and too little of everything else – not particularly a bad problem to have, but given the fact that the mélange of flavors worked so well it would have been nice to have everything present throughout the duration of the dish.
Choosing one hot and one cold option for my first course I started off with the hot - Green Eggs and Ham Risotto featuring Pancetta, Gremolata, Poached Egg, Watercress Puree, Arborio Rice, Mascarpone Cheese, Parmesan Reggiano, and Black Truffle. Reading the description my first impression was “wow, that is a lot of ingredients.” Taking my first bite – well, the ingredients were all there and they all tasted splendid. Beginning with the risotto – flawlessly creamy yet just a bit toothsome, clean and wonderfully prepared. Highlighting the risotto were the wonderful flavors of garlic, watercress, lemon, and (I believe) parsley while sharp notes of salty parmesan and ham brought everything to a point. Blending in the egg added a whole new level of velvety smoothness and just perceivable on the palate and nostrils was the faint air of truffles. Large in portion and larger in flavor this dish could’ve served many as a main and stands currently as the best risotto dish I’ve ever encountered.
My second dish was a no brainer – not only do I love foie gras when served in terrine or torchon form, but I’d heard that it was one of chef Gilbert’s signature dishes. Titled
A short break, approximately 20 minutes, divided the first from second course – already pleased I sat with a smile on my face anticipating what was next. Arriving again with excellent description and presentation my aunt’s dish was something I’d identified as a must-have from the online menu – I was glad she’d order it so I could have a taste without committing to a full plate. Titled simply as Parisian Gnocchi with Ramps, Wild Mushrooms, Brussels Sprouts the dish was nicely balanced with the buttery pate a choux dumplings and their pillowy texture contrasted nicely by the pungent sprouts with a caramelized and crisp snap. Smoothing out the contrast was an aromatic and earthy sauce tasting the very essence of woodsy spring tones while a touch of balsamic and parmesan added a salty aspect. Much like the beet salad I do feel this dish had a few too many sprouts compared to dumplings, but when the vegetables are so fresh and well prepared having a plethora is hardly a ‘problem.’
For my mother her main course was a bit of a classic – so much that it was listed on the bistro classics section of the menu. Arriving golden, aromatic, and with a flawlessly crispy skin harboring moist and tender flesh the Clay Roasted Half Free Range Chicken with Wild Mushroom Cream, Potato Puree was exactly as described and second only to that at Boulevard in San Francisco in terms of best Roasted Chicken ever. Lightly accented with only salt and pepper the juicy bird sat atop a buttery blend of Robuchon-esque riced potato puree and in a small cup was an entirely unnecessary (because the chicken was so good on its own) but excellent sauce tasting like a concentrate of mushroom, cayenne, and Worchestire. As my mother is not a fan of dark meat I enjoyed a good portion of the chicken and actually found the thigh meat to be as good as most breasts I’ve had in recent memory – more evidence that “tastes like chicken” is very much dependant on where one sources their chickens.
Selecting another pair of appetizers for my second course they were delivered together – one a typical choice and the other somewhat outside my norm. The first selection, Citrus Roasted Sweetbreads - White Asparagus, Sauce Gribiche was an interesting choice as I generally don’t favor mayonnaise or mustard (two of the primary components in Gribiche) but I do love Sweetbreads and White Asparagus. Featuring three large slices of the offal, breaded and pan-seared crispy with heavy accents of orange and lemon the Sweetbreads themselves were superb and pairing the creamy organ meat with the snappy asparagus proved an excellent match. Topping the dish was the gribiche, but not in a traditional manner in that it was largely lacking of mayonnaise, instead a rough-cut admixture of hardboiled eggs, herbs, pickle, and light accents of mustard – it was excellent, though I have to say the pickles and citrus provided a strange sensation when consumed without any sweetbread to temper the pairing. Overall the aggressive flavor pairing was resoundingly successful, though I did leave some of the surrounding pool of citrus on the plate – it was simply too sour once the other components were gone.
The final savory of the night was something unique – something I’d debated getting versus the gnocchi or the duck...it turned out to be the best savory of the night. Served essentially as a sausage (utilizing the pork skin as a wrap and largely the meat with most of the tendon, bone, and collagen removed) over top of a pan-seared and reduced base of onion, green and red peppers, and tomatoes the protein itself was succulent and smooth without being overly fatty. Topping the dish with a creamy Bernaise while the base of the plate was lacquered with a wild mushroom pan sauce (similar, but less heavy than the mushroom sauce with the chicken) the overall effect of the dish was rustic yet refined, heavy but unlike the traditional heaviness of trotters, and extremely well composed.
Browsing the cheese menu, excellent like most everything else, I declined (promising myself to indulge when I return for the tasting) and we moved on to the dessert menu – an eclectic list of both the whimsical and refined, fruit and chocolate. Starting first with my mother’s option, Creamsicle Crème Brulee – interesting to say the least. Not generally a fan of Crème Brulee myself I have to say this version proved quite impressive with a satisfying crack of the shell leading to a room-temperature custard that tasted somewhat like a push-up, but vastly more refined with subtle notes of citrus poking though the ample vanilla tones.
For my aunt’s dessert selection, the most substantial (portion-wise) of the desserts - Trio of Glazed Donuts - Caramel-Heath Cream, Hazelnut-Chocolate, and Lemon Dipping Sauces. Featuring three piping hot donuts with minimal grease, a crisp exterior, and a pillowy interior just mildly sweetened with confectioner’s sugar the donuts were quite tasty on their own and only enhanced by the three sauces. Ranging from a zesty and potent Meyer lemon curd to a Nutella-esque Hazelnut and finally a caramel toffee so thick you could stand a spoon upright in it each of the sauces was good enough to be eaten with a spoon – but better on a warm donut.
Moving on to the final taste of my evening, the decision was easy - Brioche Bread Pudding with Chocolate Pistols, Creme Anglaise, Tahitian Ice Cream. My favorite way to end any meal I can say without hesitation that Forest Grill’s bread pudding was not only unique in presentation, but one of the five best I’ve ever tasted. Passing of the standard “cake” or “loaf” style, this version featured a thick custard base of Crème Anglaise that was then studded with cubes of buttery brioche and chunks of dark chocolate before being placed under the broiler and subsequently dusted with confectioner’s sugar and a dollop of heavenly vanilla ice cream. Utilizing this method created an entirely heterogeneous experience – one moment a fully saturated piece of brioche, the next a chunk of chocolate, then subsequently a toasty piece of bread with less gravity. Acting as the lynchpin for the dish, the Anglaise was hefty in texture but subtle in taste – enhanced by the chocolate and acting on its own the nuance the bread. Truly a wonderful dish I’d order it again without a second thought.
Paying the surprisingly modest tab for so much great food ($180 with tax/tip) and thanking Tim for his wonderful service we made our way to the car after nearly two hours of magnificent dining. Having dined at many of the best restaurants in the country I can definitively say that the food Chef Gilbert is putting out of the kitchen at Forest Grill is every bit as competent as the best Farm-to-Table restaurants anywhere while the service provided by Tim was not quite as refined as the best, but every bit as enjoyable. A beautiful dining room, a pleasant and interesting city, unique and delicious food – in all honesty I would say Forest Grill is the first “destination restaurant” I’ve visited in