Of the many things for which the Forge restaurant has been noted -- or notorious -- since it was first converted from a real blacksmith's to a chichi supper club, food has been perhaps the least notable element.
First the establishment's Thirties alter ego as a dance club and casino for rich socialites overshadowed the eats. Then the gangsters attracted by the gambling bucks became the first thing the Forge's name brought to mind. The ghost of Miami resident Al Capone has been said to haunt the wine cellar -- along with every other historic building in Miami, true, but when attorney Alvin Malnik bought the crumbling eatery in 1968, his connection to Miami mob financier Meyer Lansky kept the Forge's vice ahead of its victuals in the public eye (especially when Lansky's stepson was murdered in the original casino area in 1977).
Even today patronage from celebrities such as Michael Jackson tends to spawn headlines like, "Is Jacko Married to the Mob?" rather than, "Jacko Frequently Favors Forge Chicken." Which is too bad. It's darned good chicken.
432 41st St, Miami Beach
Open Sunday through Thursday 6:00 p.m. to midnight, Friday and Saturday 6:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m. Call 305-538-8533.
But I didn't know that the first couple of times I dined at the Forge, in 1993 and again in 1997. What I knew back then was that it seemed a likely spot for an especially silly celebration, with over-the-top décor that included a chandelier as big as an SUV in one dining room, and a wall-length aviary in the ladies' loo. I knew that the wine cellar, including bottles such as an 1822 Chateau Lafite Rothschild valued at $150,000, was reputed the most outstanding in town. And I knew that Al Malnik's son Shareef (née Mark), who took over the Forge in 1991, had been trying to attract a hipper clientele. Shareef succeeded, again because of factors other than food -- notably associations with scenesters such as Regine, from Jimmy'z in Monte Carlo, and Pepe Horta from Little Havana's Café Nostalgia. Wednesday nights at the Forge continue, after a decade, to be the definition of retro decadence.
But the food at both Nineties dinners? Unspeakably awful, even the steaks for which the place was renowned. Both times the meat, ordered bleu, initially came medium. The second dinner required two tries -- well after everyone else at the table had finished eating -- to get the steak even reddish rather than gray; once, the meat had been so soaked in marinade that any beef flavor was indiscernible under the vinegar. Accidental death or manslaughter?
Last winter, though, a fellow named Andrew Marc Rothschild came in as executive chef. From Jersey but definitely not a casserole kind of guy, Rothschild, in previous posts at Annabelle's in Naples and at the Marc in Chicago, had garnered "Best New Restaurant" accolades twice from John Mariani at Esquire for a sort of nouvelle/haute cuisine mix that seemed tailor-made for the Forge: new enough to get the lead out, but not too new for old-guard fans. An early meal last February was encouraging. Then, annoyingly, came nearly a year of test menus.
What's finally emerged is a menu that is too heavy on old Forge classics and light on Rothschild's newer dishes. Where's the wonderful wild mushroom flan of last February, that was, true, overwhelmed by a too-intense mushroom ragout, but still sparkled light and luxe? The grilled rare foie gras with pistachio marmalade was too weird? The enormous sea scallop in puff pastry with pea shoots had too much green crunch for the meat and potatoes crowd? C'mon!
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Still, at least the front of the new menu does feature Rothschild's specialties, some included in two tasting menus. Forget the more pricey $69.95 model, unless you favor dishes such as Châteaubriand. The $45.95 four-course menu was both good and of good value: an elegant starter of wild mushroom cappuccino, wine-flavored broth (that our server insisted was vegetarian ... perhaps) topped with foam and accompanied by a pastry-wrapped Brie "cigar"; a vegetable first plate featuring crisp fresh hearts of palm in black truffle-spiked Maytag blue cheese sauce; an entrée of pan-roasted red snapper with warm spinach and potato salad and basil-caper sauce; and a dessert of homemade lemon curd and fresh berries with a meringue anisette waffle cookie.
An à la carte Rothschild appetizer special, al Ceppo pasta with lobster, sea urchin cream, and tobiko roe, was probably the best version of updated macaroni and cheese I've had in Miami, though the sea urchin was indiscernible and the lobster a bit sparse for the price. As for Forge classics, Michael Jackson's favorite, "Glamorous Forge Chicken," really was wonderful; the Gorgonzola beurre blanc not at all, as I'd feared, too cheesy, and the oak-grilled poultry itself a total thing of beauty: astonishingly precisely cooked white meat, to juicy, slightly smoky perfection, on a very interesting layered Middle Eastern tanori bread. And in Rothschild's hands I did finally get a great steak, not vinegary at all, nor so overmarinated that herbs overwhelmed the natural aged beef flavor. And, if not bleu as ordered, it at least came rare. Accompanying stone-ground mustard sauce was nicely piquant, if unnecessary. The steak's only problem was lack of generosity. For $44.95, a handful of frites and a small helping of greens, rather than just a meat slab on a plate, would have made a big psychological difference in the warm and fuzzy satisfaction factor. (À la carte creamed spinach is $7.95, and, in the absence of generous impulses, recommended.)
The wine list is still, indeed, awesome in terms of wines available by the bottle. By the glass, though, selection is distinctly nonthrilling, with not even a healthful pinot noir to accompany one's steak. A Simi cabernet had sufficient substance, if not enough complexity; major unevolved tannins predominated. At $12.50, it was no bargain.
To finish, the Forge's chocolate Grand Marnier soufflé (which needs to be ordered at the meal's start) is a traditional fave, but Rothschild does it very well. It is, in fact, so intense on its own that my advice would be to prevent your server from breaking the soufflé's crust and pouring in the pitcher of additional hot fudge, unless you favor old-style Forge -- you'll excuse the expression -- overkill.