The Forge - Miami Beach
The place has quite a history: supposedly, it was originally an actual blacksmiths' shop, and in the 1930's was turned into a restaurant and casino. It was purchased in the late 1960's by the Malnick family, who were responsible for an opulent renovation that made the place a landmark for the next several decades. The restaurant survived a fire in 1991 and extensive damage from Hurricane Andrew in 1992; but after a 40-year run, The Forge closed its doors in July of last year, supposedly to do a major renovation. Frankly, most who heard that were dubious. "Closed for renovations" actually means "closed for good" about 90% of the time, and those odds seemed even more stacked against The Forge, whose extravagant, big-ticket style seemed particularly out of step with the declining local and national economy.
But The Forge proved all the skeptics wrong when it reopened its doors this month, showing off a thorough redecoration of the space, and also bringing in a new chef (Dewey LoSasso, formerly the chef-owner of now-closed locals' favorite North One Ten) to run the kitchen. Both the renovation and the chef have breathed new life into an old classic.
The entranceway, previously gated, has been opened up, making for a dramatic catwalk into the restaurant, with sconces which could have been lifted from a Tim Burton set along the walls. The main dining room has been brightened up considerably with new blond-stained wood paneling on the walls and new tables and chairs throughout (some in gigantic Alice in Wonderland proportions). A wall of glass beads separates a second dining room, and around the corner is a glassed-in private dining room as well as the "Library," an intimate little room with a gas-lit fireplace and stained glass all around. It's perhaps just a tad less ostentatious than the original pre-renovation Forge, but it will certainly never be described as minimalist.[*]
Chef LoSasso's menu is similarly ornate. Fans of North One Ten will recognize some of Dewey's signature dishes, like his smoked salmon croquettes with "damn hot guava sauce," but it seems the surroundings - and, obviously some encouragement from the owners - have inspired the chef to explore any number of flights of fancy. Indeed, while the Forge still serves several steaks, it would be misleading to call it a steakhouse now. The menu is too far-reaching to fit into that narrow pigeonhole.
Examples? There's a list of 10 "savory snacks" to start a meal, small bites ranging from $6 to $15 that include those croquettes, mini oyster po'boys, chicken liver crostini, and what is hoped to become a new signature item: "Lobster, Peanut Butter & Jelly Sandwich." Though relieved to see that the components are actually chilled lobster, chopped fresh peanuts, and onion marmalade, I still wasn't bold enough to try this one (I now regret it). We did try the fig and white bean dim sum, which brought a translucent har gow style dumpling with a creamy filling tasting much more of creamed white beans than of fig, floating in a golden lemongrass broth. I liked both the dumpling and the broth, though I wasn't entirely convinced as to their combination.
Such unusual combinations, and in particular the mingling of savory and sweet, can be found throughout the menu. A starter of citrus cured wild salmon - a tremendously generous serving, with thin slices of the fish blanketing an oversize platter - was more successfully paired with a spicy orange jam. Since it was Passover, I had to try the "Lobster Hot Pot," which featured a broth studded with lobster meat, clams, calamari, and juliennes of Napa cabbage, along with a matzo ball floating in the middle of all that traife. It was another unlikely combination which would have worked, except that the broth was overwhelmingly salty, obscuring the flavor of the seafood. Other tempting-sounding appetizers included a grilled shrimp waffle with wasabi caviar, basil butter and grilled carambola, or johnny cakes topped with oscetra caviar. More traditional palates can stick with the Forge chopped salad, a Caesar salad, lobster bisque, "giant" U2 shrimp cocktail, or king crab legs with two sauces (The Forge hasn't entirely abandoned its roots after all).
Fans of the original Forge can also still get the "Super Steak," a 16-oz., 3-week dry aged prime NY strip that Wine Spectator once called the "Best Steak in America." But there are several other options as well, some of which, in a concession to current times, have much less lofty price tags (the Super Steak goes for $52). The "Coffee and Eggs" ($39) features a coffee-rubbed ribeye paired with a little round goat cheese frittata, and it was enormous (I brought home half of it to finish the next day), perfectly cooked, and delicious. The coffee rub, along with a generous salting, highlights the beefy, minerally flavors of the steak. The Barolo-braised short rib ($28) was likewise a Fred Flintstone-esque portion which became multiple meals, served over a bed of polenta along with a crisp of prosciutto - a fine dish, but not the most exciting thing on the menu. You can dine in these luxurious surroundings for even cheaper by ordering the 14-oz. churrasco steak (with "chimichurri from hell") for $23, or the spice rubbed duck with sangria sauce ($24).
Or you can get the "Burger and Bordeaux" like Frod Jr. did. A $20 burger is hardly a bargain, but this rendition is every bit as over-the-top as the rest of the Forge, a grind of Angus sirloin topped with both shredded short rib and "lobster marmalade" (nubbins of lobster cooked in what I think was a tomato-based sauce), some pomegranate ketchup, and served with truffled French fries and a tiny pour of an (unidentified) Bordeaux (no, Frod Jr. did not get to taste the wine). Too many notes, your majesty? Perhaps. But it also happens to be a perfectly great burger.
The menu also features a selection of fish and seafood options for the non-carnivorous, a number of main-course sized pastas and grains, and a long list of vegetable sides as well, much of which demonstrates a focus on local product that you wouldn't necessarily expect at a place like this. The three mushroom risotto Little Miss F tried relied on the crutch of white truffle oil to enhance the melange of shiitake, portabello and porcini mushrooms (much more of the first two than the last) but was good nonetheless. Possibly more interesting might be a spaghetti with kale, poached egg and parmesan, or a festonati with house dried tomatoes, cauliflower and pesto. I loved the side of fava beans we had, mixed with wasabi caviar and rich Plugra butter, in part because it wasn't me shelling all those favas. The vegetable selections, aside from old standards like a baked potato or roasted garlic mashed potatoes, include local Paradise Farms oyster mushrooms sautéed with herbs and garlic, endive braised with oranges, almonds and gorgonzola, collard greens sautéed with blueberries (!) and shallots, or haricot vert with soy and sweet chili sauce.
Another tradition at the Forge is the dessert soufflés, and we happily went old school to finish our meal. The chocolate soufflé is every bit as good as it used to be, which is awfully darn good. As good as the soufflés are, though, it's possibly unfortunate that they may detract attention from the rest of the dessert menu, which has been put together by local pastry guru Malka Espinel. Since the soufflés must be ordered in advance, diners may never see that dessert menu, which looks pretty intriguing: torrone nougat cheesecake with honey roasted grapes and Sauternes syrup - corn three ways (polenta cake, corn ice cream, and "Cracker Jack" popcorn) - banana fluffernutters with malted milk? I may need to avoid the temptation of the soufflé next time.
The bar at The Forge is also worthy of mention. The restaurant is pushing itself heavily as a wine bar, and has installed two walls of Enomatic dispensers holding 80 bottles. These expensive, multipurpose machines display wine bottles, hold open bottles under inert gas to prevent oxidation, and pump out pours of various measured sizes. You can either order from one of the bartenders or get yourself a card and DIY right at the machines. The selections range from the pedestrian (Sterling Vineyards Merlot) to the prodigal (1995 Chateau Haut-Brion for $165.50 a glass), with plenty of interest in between (a white Chateauneuf du Pape from Vieux Lazaret, Alex Gambal Vosne-Romanee, Numanthia Termes; or if your tastes run richer, Opus One, Tignanello, or Phelps Insignia). The full-blown wine list still comes to the table in a bound notebook and is one of the most impressive collections in town, particularly for Bordeauxs and Burgundies. Our Louis Latour Volnay En Chevret (2005) was a lovely Premier Cru that was priced at only about 2x its current retail cost.
Fitting for the surroundings, the cocktail menu goes both new school and old. Mrs. F went "new" with a "Kiucumber," a not-too-sweet blend of vodka, St. Germain, kiwi, cucumber, basil and lime juice, while I went old with a "Forge Manhattan," though even here there were some contemporary twists: port playing the role of sweet vermouth, cherry bitters instead of Angostura, and a spherified globe of Cherry Heering in place of the maraschino cherry. All modern gimmicks aside, it was a perfectly composed drink, with just enough sweetness to temper, but not entirely obscure, the bite of the Jim Beam Rye Whiskey. They also offered fresh squeezed juices for the kids, which were festively topped off with some lychee froth which they both loved.
Service was uniformly friendly, attentive, and informed, though it seems to be an entirely new generation that has been brought in to replace some of the tuxedoed dinosaurs who used to roam through the place. While I sort of miss those old dinosaurs, it's gratifying to see another generation coming in.
When I first heard that Chef LoSasso was coming in to the Forge, it seemed a somewhat unlikely pairing. But the menu he's put together makes a certain perfect sense for the place. It's extravagant, it's luxurious, it's got some stuff thrown together that doesn't seem like it ought to be, and in some instances it's outright peculiar - just like The Forge itself. And like a visit to The Forge, it's fun, it's satisfying, and in its own particular way, it's uniquely Miami.
432 W. 41st Street
Miami Beach, FL 33140
[*]I understand the ladies' room is quite impressive as well, though the birds that used to occupy it (in a birdcage, that is) back in the old days are missed.