With 46 years of dining history, a $2.7 million wine cellar and a notorious past filled with New York wiseguys and tabloid-worthy pop stars, The Forge is like a classic movie you relish revisiting, even though you know the ending.
Its new chef, James Beard Award winner Christopher Lee, doesn’t disappoint traditionalists, but he courts new fans with modern, homespun adaptations that counterbalance the opulence of the legendary spot known for drawing what one New York mob investigator famously called “men with big cigars and women with tiny résumés.”
The town’s original steakhouse keeps its beef-centered focus while Lee successfully riffs off the playful tone set by Miami chef Dewey LoSasso, who introduced a newly renovated Forge in 2010, but jumped kitchens last year to AQ at the Acqualina Resort & Spa in Sunny Isles Beach. (LoSasso’s redo earned the Forge 3.5 stars from the Miami Herald.)
Lee brings rich culinary cred from San Francisco, Philadelphia and New York. His work earned Michelin stars for Manhattan’s Gilt and Aureole. Lee also tried to make a go of it in Miami Beach, at the forgettable and short-lived Eden. Forge owner Shareef Malnik (whose father Al, a famous lawyer and Meyer Lansky friend, founded and ran The Forge until his son took over in 1991) lured Lee back to South Florida for another shot.
Lee has fun with fanciful starters and entrees that show off his skills and lighten the baroque atmosphere at the restaurant, a onetime 1920s blacksmith shop turned Fellini-esque social destination favored by Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Michael Jackson and, most recently, Justin Timberlake.
A refreshing sea scallop ceviche comes with succulent mojito-infused watermelon, white bubbles of coconut and chopped cucumber, accompanied by a crispy funnel cake strip of fried dough that delivers wisps of childhood carnival memories with each bite.
Chubby, long cuts of charred and fatty jerk-seasoned bacon are cooled by fine-chopped mango salsa, a flaming sweet punch.
A delightful tuna tartare arrives deconstructed, topped by a wobbly “yolk” of miso sake dressing that is gently broken and mashed into the fish. Colorful dots on the plate — lime-lemon zest, chopped shiso, red onions and daikon radish — are whisked into the composition, adding their own distinct flavors. Scallion pancakes as a side feature, though tasty, overwhelm the dish with their thickness.
Servers are engaging and well-versed on the white onyx-backed menu, although their casual demeanor seems oddly out of place amid the chandeliers, mirrors and high-backed sofas.
At Malnik’s request, Lee has retained favorites such as shrimp cocktail and a standout, finely chopped kale salad. Also notably remaining: longtime sommelier Gino Santangelo, who presides over the Wine Spectator-approved cellar.
The stars of the menu are still the prime cuts. Among them, the American Wagyu from Idaho’s Snake River Farms and New York strips and filet mignon from Kansas’ Creekstone Farms, cooked evenly to order, with perfectly charred exteriors. Steaks come with a new smoky-sweet Forge sauce by Lee. Diners also can opt to pay for other sauces (green peppercorn, mustard, black truffle, bordelaise or bearnaise) or flavored butters.
In steakhouse fashion, sides are extra but worth it, especially the velvety black truffle mac-and-cheese pot pie, which could be an entree on its own.
But don’t miss out on some of Lee’s inventive “composed” dishes. The native New Yorker’s tribute to his beloved Katz’s Deli is a duck breast unusually seasoned with pastrami-style coriander seeds, peppercorns and mustard served atop braised cabbage and rye gnocchi. For the adventuresome, his tradition-defying tuna Wellington is more of a marvel than a crowd-pleaser.
Prices are a notch higher. The affordable “snacks” that LoSasso introduced are gone, and the menu lacks local sensibility.
But Lee and pastry chef Alycia Delaney — whose chocolate Napoleon is a deconstructed wonder of mousse balls, whipped nougat, crunchy candy bar, caramelized popcorn and tart lemon dots atop dark chocolate swirls — are worthy emissaries to deliver the legend to a new generation.
Critics dine anonymously at the Miami Herald’s expense.