Forest Grill, Birmingham, MI (April 2011)

On a near daily–strike that, hourly–basis this semester, I’ve referred to Michigan as a miserable place or some variant therein. There are, however, those exceedingly rare moments where I am actually not wholly rueful of my decision to leave California for a largely foodie-unfriendly state, and for the most part, tonight was one of them.

While Michigan isn’t known as a pillar of gastronomy, The French Laundry is and that’s where The Forest Grill’s Executive Chef David Gilbert trained before settling in Michigan.

The initial throb to dine at Forest Grill came about three weeks ago when I realized I would need some telos to look forward to amid the avalanchic levels of anxiety surrounding finals. When I called to make the reservation for a tasting menu, Monica, the general manager, almost immediately passed the phone off to Chef Gilbert. We exchanged stories for a few minutes before settling on the details–budget, approximate number of courses, bread asceticism etc.–of dinner.

On the day of dinner, humiliation from finals still buzzed overhead like a nettlesome fly, but upon arrival it felt as if the forty-five minute drive had transported me to another state. I was immediately whisked off to the kitchen to meet Chef Gilbert and his two-cook brigade, Sarah and Chris. And after reaffirming my affinity for offal and their brioche bread pudding from my previous meal there in August, Brendan, my server for the evening, walked me over to a quiet corner where I would spend the next three hours along with my dining companion, Martin Amis’s The Pregnant Widow.

Chef Gilbert earned my respect with the first offering: a shrimp cocktail with brunoised Hass avocado and mango as well as chunks of bay scallop. Serving a dish popularized in the 1970s is an unabashed “fuck you” to chefs and food critics who slag off this classic as passé.

Next, a trio of salads: (from left to right) (1) romaine with Caesar dressing, Spanish anchovy, shaved parmesan, and a parmesan chip, (2) arugula with baby beets, fried goat cheese and candied walnut, and (3) iceberg lettuce with Point Reyes blue cheese, walnuts, lardons, and a buttermilk dressing. All three salad greens were well dressed; the only off-putting viand was the chalky goat cheese, especially since it was bookended by the parm and sweet blue from the Bay Area.

For the third course, a fiery Ahi tuna tartare seasoned with harissa and pimentón was mellowed by cucumber, yogurt, chickpea, and a piece of lavash.

The next course, too, brought piquancy with sauce gribiche, encircled by a balsamic reduction, keeping in place a lump crab cake topped with a sixty-three degree quail egg and frisée.

For the first offal course, Sarah served seared foie gras atop brioche-based pain perdu, crème anglaise, basil and pomegranate seeds in a rhubarb consommé. This was a promising plate based on the description, but it ended up being a middling dish. Part of the problem, I think, is that I’m wont to have rock salt or fleur de sel on my foie, which among other things accentuates the liver’s sweetness. Brendan brought a fine sea salt, improving the dish, but it still didn’t provide the crunch I was looking for.

Following the foie was another offal course: a crispy sweetbread and two slices of pickled and braised veal tongue with fingerling potatoes, warm coleslaw, horseradish cream, port reduction and fried spinach. I liked the idea of preparing veal tongue as if it was corned beef, but it totally muted the sweetbread’s milder flavor.

Next out: potato gnocchi, butter poached lobster, shaved pecorino, beurre blanc and black truffle. Even though the black truffle was not especially fragrant, it didn’t matter, nor for that matter did I care for the lilliputian pieces of lobster. My interest centered on the half-dozen Elysian dumplings coated in a slightly nutty butter.

The fish course–Alaskan halibut, butter toasted brioche bread crumbs, citrus supremes, butter poached yukon gold potatoes and baby turnips–was most underwhelming. There were a number of problems with this dish. First, the fish’s alabaster flesh was loused up by what I imagine to be either an unclean pan or a beurre noir. More importantly, though, the fillet was totally underseasoned.

Having made it to the midway point, I finally asked for bread and out came a warm sesame and poppyseed loaf with appropriately room temperature butter.

Shifting to the other end of the continuum, this was the best dish of the night, a seared diver scallop, carrot purée, fried Mangalitsa belly, ginger-orange reduction, spring peas and pea tendrils. At this point, an annoying habit of Brendan surfaced; he described the scallop as “perfectly seared”–I’ll be the judge of that, I thought– and would do so once more.

With the taste of pork belly from the previous course still fresh on my mind, I was next treated to a Berkshire pork chop with mustard seed-studded pork jus, roasted Brussels Sprouts, roasted carrot and spiced pecans. As I sampled my first forkful, I thought inly, what a well-seasoned plate of food, meeting my unhealthily high salt bar.

Here, according to Brenden at least, we have a “perfectly medium rare” duck breast, foie and sweetbread sausage, oyster mushrooms, asparagus and more fingerling potatoes. Another amylaceous-laden plate was really beginning to take its toll on my stomach capacity. Also, because the duck breast was cut so thinly, the somewhat crispy skin turned flaccid.

The eight-hour braised veal cheeks with ricotta gnocchi and wilted spinach reminded me of an unpleasant memory at Ortolan in Los Angeles where we were served a four or five ounce mound of braised lamb shoulder near the end of a thirteen-course tasting menu–it takes the diner from being fed to being stuffed.

The hazelnut semifreddo with steamed milk was refreshing and a welcome change in temperature.

Not all that keen on doughnuts, I took a few bites of the butter pecan doughnut filled with butterscotch custard glazed with bourbon chocolate and candied pecans but just couldn’t bring myself to finish it.

As delicious as the cinnamon-chocolate brioche bread pudding with crème anglaise and Tahitian vanilla bean ice cream was, it proved to be one heavy dish too many, resulting in nearly half of it returning to the kitchen.

I wish I could be the Switzerland of reviewing because everyone was so nice. But just as airports and rubbishy novels have an inseparable bond, there seems to be an equally irksome status quo insofar as Michigan restaurants and hurried dining. Given Chef Gilbert’s training at the French Laundry, I was optimistic, but even the Forest Grill knows fuck-all about making a meal theatric! The short five minute intervals between courses became predictable and, thus, bathetic, like a teenager trying to prove that he can perform, but what invariably follows from his rabbit-like rhythm is the disappointment associated with ejaculatio praecox. After dinner, in a postlude with Chef Gilbert I said as much, sans the imprecation and ribald imagery. To be fair, they are far from the worst transgressors (that honor goes to Zingerman’s Roadhouse, which at one point brought out five dishes in rapid succession). What this dinner taught me, though, was that when my desiderations for a longish menu recrudesce, my closest outlet will have to be in Chicago.

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