Forging Ahead

This past July, one of Miami Beach's landmark restaurants, the Forge, spewed more smoke and soot than in the Roaring Twenties, when the site was an ornamental blacksmith's shop. A fire had started in the restaurant's new automatic wine dispenser - said to be the world's largest - and before it was squelched, more than twenty million dollars worth of objets d'art, paintings, tapestries, and entire walls of stained glass went up in flames. Gone were the rooms named for their artistic motifs - the Pharmacy, the Sports Room, and the Cabaret.

A scant four months later, in November, Alvin Malnik, who has owned the establishment since 1968, reopened the Louvre of Miami restaurants. After serving as a restaurant and gambling casino in the Thirties and a steak house in the Fifties, under Malnik the Forge had evolved into a combination multi-dining room facility, art gallery, and one of the world's largest restaurant wine cellars. As for the wine cellar, none of its 300,000 bottles, which were stored in climate-controlled quarters far from the fire, were lost. And the partially restored Forge is an eyeful, even if you've seen it in its original splendor, when it seated 475. The current configuration accommodates less than half that number, but when full - as it was on a recent Friday evening - the place was as lively as a restaurant should be.

As my dining companion and I savored warm dinner rolls and chewy, onion-topped focaccia from the brick oven, we gawked at the wine list, which is to say my dining companion and I perused the 253-page "short list" while a couple of friends scanned the "master," which is at least 400 pages long. And while our eyes widened at an 1899 Chateau Margaux that goes for $6000 and a Chateau Latour 1947 at $2800, we also noted that prices dip as low as $11.

Our visitors ordered a Louis Martini 1968 Cabernet Sauvignon ($108) for the table, and instructed the wine steward to put it on their tab, much to the relief of my dining companion. Their generous gesture gave us the opportunity to witness the flawless decanting of their selection by the sommelier, his tasting of it, and, best of all, allowed us to try an exquisite wine. The sauvignon's nose hints of chocolate and herbs - Mexican coffee comes to mind - and, true to its reputation as one of California's greatest cabernets, it holds firm to the finish.

The four of us enjoyed a variety of appetizers, including jumbo stone crabs, caviar pie, and a dish called "Forge New House Pasta." The first two were delicious, particularly the caviar pie ($7.95), a creation made of American sturgeon roe layered with garnishes over phyllo. With the exception of the market-price stone crabs, starters at the Forge are quite reasonable, ranging between $4.95 for Maui onion soup and $9.95 for a turn on Maryland crab cakes in which the crab is mixed with focaccia shreds and served over a roasted-pepper sauce. A half-dozen pasta appetizers, on a separate list, run between $7.95 and $11.95. The least successful of our choices was the "New House." Listed as a "spa" dish, indicating that it is a lighter offering than the heavier, Continental fare offered at the Forge, the pasta was described as a light-textured linguine in tomato and herbs. I found it to be quite unspalike, a bland linguine congealed in gobs of too-sweet tomato sauce. The additional "touch of well-roasted but sweetened garlic sauteed in a light, virgin olive oil" was a waste of the chef's time; I could discern no garlicky scent or taste, nor much fresh basil, which was also said to have been used. Much better was the house salad ($5.95), a generous mound of fresh greens dressed in a balsamic vinaigrette containing bits of gorgonzola that, given the chance, could become addictive.

While the menu boasts some innovative sauces and accompaniments - Maine lobster, for example, comes with couscous, which the chef will prepare in Moroccan, Algerian, or Tunisian style, all fully described on the menu - the basic fare is evenly balanced between seafood and meat. On this last score, there is an emphasis on beef prepared a number of unusual ways, including the restaurant's signature "Hobo Steak," prime sirloin marinated in herbs and balsamic vinegar and grilled over oak, and sirloin "Java style," laced with Indian peppercorns and other Eastern spices and served with a Javanese sauce.

Our entrees were gargantuan in size and good to the last bite. My dining companion eschewed the seafood, veal, chicken, lamb, and beef dishes for his favorite: duck. Cooked with black currants, his bird, priced at $19.95 and said to be a "free ranger" from Wisconsin, was roasted to the rich color of fine cherry wood. Beneath the crisp skin, there was no layer of subcutaneous fat, as is often the case with duck, only moist, lean meat. The currant sauce added richness without being cloying.

I chose veal chops ($25.95), a dish I figured would benefit greatly from the restaurant's Tuscan style of grilling over aromatic oak chips. I figured right. Two enormous chops graced a large white platter garnished with dollops of forest-green spinach laced with garlic. The chops were perfectly cooked, blush-pink inside, and juicy. Their smoky oak flavor needed no embellishment.

Our friends went the beef route, one ordering the grilled prime rib (18 ounces at $19.95; 24 ounces at $24.95) and the other the aforementioned "Hobo Steak" ($25.95). While I am of the school that says a steak is a steak is a steak - if it's a good cut and cooked carefully, it doesn't benefit further from any exotic seasonings, sauces, or special cooking methods - the Forge proves me wrong. Beef here is marinated in a variety of herbs, seasonings, and balsamic vinegar, and the combination of marinated meat and an oak-fire nuance does add distinctive, complementary flavor.

Our carnivorous visitors so enjoyed their entrees that they didn't save ample room for the Grand Marnier souffles they chose for dessert. The same was true for my dining companion and me with our individual chocolate souffles, which were as warm, runny, and rich as they are supposed to be, but we were so full that we lost the strength to raise our spoons to our mouths.

The Forge is back, Miami. Risen from the ashes like an opulent phoenix, it's back, it's fat, and it's sassy, and as grand as ever. A little belated, perhaps, but we'll raise a New Year's toast to that. Another bottle of Louis Martini Cabernet Sauvignon 1968, please.

And put it on the other guy's tab.

4432 41st St, Miami Beach; 538-8533. Hours: Daily from 5:00 p.m. to midnight.


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