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by Victoria Pesce Elliott | May 1, 2010 | Food & Drink
When Shareef Malnik closed The Forge abruptly a year ago “for renovations,” many suspected it was code for “the end.” It’s not as if a serious makeover for this stodgy landmark wasn’t necessary. In fact, it was long overdue.
The former Miami Beach blacksmith workshop that had been transformed into a fine-dining establishment in the late ’60s by attorney Alvin Malnik—and which boasted a roster of star customers as long as its 29,000-bottle wine list— needed more than a bit of Botox. Now, after a year of work, the result is bright and sophisticated, modern and extravagant—but still with a good dose of its former grandeur.
“We’ve gone from dark to light, literally,” says Malnik, who took over the museum piece from his father in 1991 after a devastating fire. “I was saddled then with reinventing what people thought of as an old stuffy restaurant.” He did it successfully then, and 19 years later, is now creating another metamorphosis.
As a symbol of the fresh, brighter style, Malnik swears that no flashlights will be required to read the menus in the newly spacious dining room. Gone, too, are the silver cloches, the tuxedoed waiters, the 12-foot-high Victorian fireplace and the dark oil paintings. And yes, the caged Australian finches in the women’s bathroom have flown the coop: A former waiter took them home. Instead, a racy, larger-than-life Helmut Newton nude sprawls across the stall doors, a swimmer made from hand-blown glass bubbles hangs from the ceiling, and bulbs gleam at the makeup stations.
Malnik worked with designer Francois Frossard, but the vision is very much his own: “I wanted it to feel like a house—a very elegant house. But still comfortable and still The Forge.” Replacing the antique-filled former décor are burnished golden-ash walls, low-slung white leather couches, deep basket-like chairs, hand-etched glass tabletops, Murano-glass chandeliers and gold-lamé wallpaper.
The whole space glows. What used to accommodate some 300 people sitting at tightly packed tables in six different rooms now holds 200 in one wide-open, flowing place.
In place of the old bar is a 22-foot-long community table made of polished Indonesian tree trunk. The library, with its bright, stained-glass walls, looks the most like it did, though it too has been whitewashed and is outfitted with Wi-Fi.
The walls of the former Nouveau Room and Dome Room have been knocked out to create a shiny rectangular bar surrounded by 30 seats. “Who wants to sit at a bar and look at a wall?” asks Malnik, referring to the dark oak counter at which patrons used to jockey for a spot.
He’s most proud of the gleaming Enomatic wine system, dispensers that can shoot out by-the-ounce selections from some 80 different bottles. Above them hang sleek flat-screen televisions.
And in addition to specialty cocktails, dessert shots and a collection of 42 microbrewed beers, there is an interactive wine station in the area where the DJ used to play. There you’ll find executive sommelier Gino Santangelo, who has been with The Forge for more than 30 years and has seen the museum-like cellar through some tragic times, including the loss of many vintage bottles after Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
“We don’t want to intimidate people,” says Malnik, regarding the new wine program. “Sommeliers came up to people with cups around their necks in tuxedos. The whole concept was flawed.” Instead, he has devised a rather ingenious do-it-yourself approach that even includes a customized iPhone app to keep track of customers’ selections. It also helps with food pairings.
The dining room was designed in collaboration with Francois Frossard.
The Forge built its reputation as a steakhouse at a time when there weren’t many others on the Beach. And though the restaurant has always been known as glamorous, food was not necessarily its high point.
That reputation began to change when Malnik began to serve a fantastic 16-ounce New York strip “Super Steak.” It garnered accolades as the number-one steak in America from Wine Spectator in 1996, and is still on the menu for $52 (other entrées are priced between $16 and $39). Also still available are the Giant U2 shrimp cocktail, flashy raw-bar sampler tower, crab cakes, Maine lobster, lobster bisque and chopped salad.
For more than two decades, The Forge retained the same chef, Kal Abdalla, who created many of the restaurant’s signature dishes. Finding the right fit after he left proved difficult.
Ultimately, Malnik grilled 172 toques—feeling “like a Top Chef judge,” he says—before selecting Miami’s own Dewey LoSasso. It was perfect timing for the chef, who had just closed his North One 10 restaurant in North Miami. A Jersey boy who had helmed Micky Wolfson’s Foundlings Club in the 1980s as well as Tuscan Steak, LoSasso says he really gets Malnik’s vision of maintaining classics while lightening things up.
His quirky brand of cooking (he used local sea grapes to make pepper jelly and cooked with mango-tree trunks after Hurricane Wilma) incorporates local ingredients in playful ways. “It’s now the kind of place where you can come in and share a snack while you read through the menu, order a couple of pastas and then have a steak if you want,” says LoSasso. “You don’t have to have a full-blown meal. There really is something for every kind of diner.”
That means—in addition to five kinds of grilled meat—there will be a lobster peanut butter and jelly sandwich, smoked-salmon croquettes with hot guava sauce, oyster po’ boys, a short-rib-topped burger with pomegranate ketchup, sesame seared tuna with chile-lime sauce, prawn waffles with grilled carambolas, and crispy soba-wrapped shrimp. More healthful sides—including quinoa pancakes, farro risotto, braised endive, red lentils, kale polenta, sautéed spinach, and fava beans with wasabi caviar—join the regular baked potato and duck fries.
“They may be old-fashioned, but the soufflés had to stay,” says Malnik. Updated flavors such as hazelnut, s’more, apple-cinnamon and pistachio are thanks to pastry chef Malka Espinel.
Malnik does acknowledge wistfully, “I had to let the French onion soup go. I felt like it was holding us back.”
So will The Forge still attract the bejeweled babes and Dom Pérignon-guzzling celebrities? No more parties, says Malnik: “I’ve done that. I used to say that fun and fine dining were not mutually exclusive, but I’ve done a 180-degree turn. I don’t want to be in the nightclub business anymore.”
His goal, he says, is simple: “We’re just trying to drop a lot of the pomp and circumstance, get rid of the pretentiousness. I just want to create a neighborhood bar and restaurant.”
PHOTOS BY Greg Clark; SETH BROWARNIK (KARDASHIAN, STONE, MCCONAUGHEY)