Review: Black rice, sunny yolks, emerald pasta, Forest grows fantastic hues and flavors
Chef Nick Janutol lets his team strut their colors with a stunning tasting menu at this popular modern Italian restaurant in Birmingham
Forest is an elegant, chef-driven restaurant that is proudly upscale without being uptight.
The past few weeks, it's been my go-to recommendation when asked about special occasion restaurants or fine dining, and I think their five-course tasting menu is an adventurous way to experience the creativity coming out of this kitchen.
The chef who is driving Forest, Nick Janutol, was the reason one customer, restaurateur Samy Eid, decided he wanted to buy it nearly five years ago. It was chef Brian Polcyn's restaurant then, and Eid of nearby Middle Eastern restaurant Phoenicia was interested in taking it under his wing.
In the last few years, Janutol and his wife, manager Allicia Janutol, have worked to perfect the balance of his fine dining background (he worked at the extremely highly acclaimed Eleven Madison Park in New York City) and her desire to keep anything about the restaurant from being pretentious.
For many in the medium-sized, pristine dining room Forest is a regular stop. It's in Birmingham, mind you, where restaurants considered once-a-year occasions for some can be in the monthly or weekly rotation for others. From the diner's chair, the clientele here appears diverse and loyal.
The front of house staff, dressed in all crisp black are knowledgeable, warm and easygoing while still being somewhat formal, but not uncomfortably so. Watch them as they go into the kitchen, which is surrounded by glass. Servers consult with chefs — who are always moving and always tasting — on how dishes, many of them in the vein of modern Italian cuisine, look before heading to the tables.
If you can get a seat that has a view of the open kitchen, you're lucky, but all areas of the colorless, modern-but-minimalist dining room seem designed to be comfortable and quiet.
At Forest, the color is all on the plates.
My favorite shade, black, is represented on a classic Forest menu item: black rice. Janutol has worked for years on this small dish, a circle of naturally black cooked forbidden rice that is partially fried and mixed with a roasted tomato and sesame puree. It's served with a bit of dark green nori and and pale pink sashimi. In spite of looking a little gloomy on the plate, the varied texture and deep flavors make this one of my favorite dishes I've had this year.
The bright orange carrot salad offers crunch from the root vegetable as well as walnuts, plus richness from a slow-cooked yolk and shaved Parmesan, all married together with mustard vinaigrette. More orange is found in the squash surrounding a perfectly cooked duck entree with salty, crispy skin.
These are on the standard menu. A similar hearty vegetable dish popped up on a recent tasting menu with duck liver and thickly shaved cauliflower — some lightly cooked and others charred to a golden brown — also with an egg yolk shining like the sun in the middle of the dish.
Also on a recent tasting menu was bright green mandilli pasta (big, flat handkerchief pasta) that had nuts and kale all tossed in a mustard vinaigrette sauce that made me say "wow" more than once. With the emerald pasta looking like it was cut with jagged pinking shears, it reminded me of the restaurant's logo, a conifer tree.
I'm told that this was a creation of Forest's chef de cuisine Matt Mayer. Janutol said the tasting menu is a way for his team to shine and grow.
"That's how we can attract the talent that we need here," he said. "Everyone that works for me at Forest in particular, this is their career ... they want to grow and learn so I needed a vehicle where they can feel they have a more creative output."
The menu is built in a way to indulge the diner. "Try as much as you can," it seems to say. It does this by generously offering two price points for the pasta dishes and a $90 tasting menu that is a roller coaster of shareable plates. There's also a good-sized cocktail list and what seems like a billion wines from which to choose.
The chef's tasting menu is five courses, plus an amuse-bouche and a pre-dessert before the final dessert. A recent meal was finished off with a trio of frozen scoops: a creamy and sweet buttermilk sherbet, berry sorbet and the best chocolate ice cream my husband said he ever tasted. I honestly can't remember a better scoop of chocolate myself, and enjoyed the hint of clove.
The main items on the tasting are versions of dishes in the menu, but may include a different plating, portion or ingredients. This is a wild ride where the diner doesn't know what's coming exactly, but can bet it's going to look and taste fantastic.
Its also a ton of food, as you should get for $90. You can almost split it between two people, especially if you add a course or two from the standard menu. Janutol says about one in 10 diners a night order the tasting menu, mostly those visiting for the first time.
"The regulars don't get tasting menus," he said. "The regulars know what they want, they get their three or four courses, and they're happy."
He said he'd been seeing more and more familiar faces and that Forest is growing at a pace that's faster than he hoped. In the future, he plans to expand on modern Italian fare and grow the tasting program, which he calls a "passion project" for him and his team of talented chefs.
Lately Janutol has been splitting his time between Forest and his newest venture with Eid, Capitol Park's Leila. This polished Middle Eastern restaurant has been packed since it opened in late October.
735 Forest, Birmingham.
(248) 258-9400 or forestbirmingham.com
Rating: ★★★ (excellent)
Hours: 5-11 p.m. Mon.-Thurs. and 5 p.m.-midnight Fri.-Sat. Forest will be closed Dec. 24-25 and Jan. 1.
Prices: small plates, $12-$17; pasta (two sizes), $16-$32; mains, $27-$51; $10 sides; $140-$190 caviar; $90 tasting menu; spirits, $9 and up; beer, $6-$11; large and varied wine list.
Noise level: Muted, even when busy.
Accessibility: No barriers
Parking: Valet, some street parking available.
What the stars mean:
★ — routine
★★ — very good
★★★ — excellent
★★★★ — extraordinary