Tap, Scroll, Swirl, Sniff
Jeffery Lindenmuth - January/February 2011
An A-list Miami Beach icon gives its wine program a high-tech makeover for a new generation of independent-minded clientele.
At The Forge Restaurant/Wine Bar, newly reopened on Miami Beach's 41st Street, you can still choose to have your bottle of Opus One 2006 retrieved from the Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence–winning cellar, then decanted on a Louis XIV desk by the proficient hand of executive sommelier Gino Santangelo, a Forge veteran of 35 years. Or, simply swipe your Forge Wine Card to debit your account as you pour yourself a few ounces of the legendary Napa Valley red blend from the temperature-controlled Enomatic system. This is The Forge 2.0—the vision of second-generation owner Shareef Malnik to put "access" ahead of the "excess" that has defined the restaurant for the past 40 years.
The transformation of The Forge from an opulent destination restaurant, conceived by Alvin Malnik and cultivated under the ownership of his son Shareef into a celebrity hot spot, famed for its bacchanal midweek dinner discos in the booming 1990s, required a remodel nearly one year and $10 million in the making. Relaunched in March 2010, the new Forge flies in the face of the pomp, ostentation, and tradition it once embodied.
Aside from the cost, many of the changes themselves defy conventional wisdom for a profitable restaurant. Malnik enlisted Francois Frossard to design a flexible flowing space, appointed with upholstered couches and oversized chairs reminiscent of a family room in order to prolong the average time that patrons spend at the table (that time is up 45 minutes). Furthermore, the open floor plan and increased options, with five different dining spaces, each featuring different acoustic zones to encourage guests to amble and explore, resulted in 100 fewer seats. After investing in an automated Enomatic wine preservation system that boasts 80 self-serve wines by the glass protected under argon gas, Malnik proceeded to lower the price on most wines. "For many years, the restaurant and nightclub industry has dictated your experience, how long you'll stay, how much you're going to pay, how you're going to order. We threw out all those rules. We didn't do anything for the sake of tradition," says Malnik.
Technology permeates The Forge, not as a theme, but as a tool. In fact, Malnik seems as inspired by Steve Jobs, whose sleek devices power everything from the wine list to the wirelessly transmitted music, as he is by the farm-to-table menu of chef Dewey LoSasso and fresh market cocktails of mixologist Andres Aleman. "You walk into an Apple store, and everyone is learning and researching and getting hands-on with what they want to buy. The younger generation doesn't need a salesman to tell them what they want. They want to kick the tires themselves. They earn their degrees and do their research online, so you have a group of people who prefer to become self-made experts," observes Malnik.
To appeal to a device-centric generation, The Forge wine app for iPhone is available for free download. The mobile app lists all the wines currently available on the Enomatic system, allows users to sort them by region, vintage, or varietal, and identifies each wine's location on one of the 10 numbered Enomatic stations. Wines are grouped by flavor profile and can be sampled in one-, three-, or five-ounce (full glass) pours.
"Supple Reds" includes Sterling Vineyards Merlot Napa Valley 2005 ($9.60/glass) and Graffigna Malbec San Juan, Argentina 2007 ($8/glass), while "Rich Whites" might offer Au Bon Climat Chardonnay Santa Barbara County 2008 ($12.80/glass) and Domaine du Vieux Lazaret Châteauneuf-du-Pape White 2007 ($15/glass). By grouping wines by flavor, rather than simply country of origin or grape variety, Malnik hopes customers will be inspired to sample neighboring wines they might enjoy and even create their own flights. At the "Powerful Reds" station, for instance, bottles of Italian Aglianico, Spanish Tempranillo, and Napa Valley Cab rub shoulders in the confines of their steel and glass case with the same camaraderie as the eager tasters.
Among the most alluring stations for dedicated wine lovers is "The Prestige," which has featured sought-after wines like Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Artemis 2006 ($24/glass) and Château Haut-Brion 1er Grand Cru Classé 1999 ($102/glass). At $33 for a one-ounce sample, the Haut-Brion is the pinnacle of a list that begins at a modest $1.20 for one ounce of Tormaresca Neprica Puglia 2008.
Enomatic-dispensed wines by the glass currently account for about 30 percent of wine sales, and Malnik predicts that number will eventually approach 50 percent. Santangelo, however, has no concerns about being displaced by robotic wine pourers. "People are excited about the Enomatic, and they have more questions than ever. You can read and study wine all your life, but that does no good without tasting. Now it's easy to grab a glass and taste an ounce, so as a sommelier I'm in favor of everything that increases the enjoyment of wine," says Santangelo.
Using The Forge app, users can create a virtual wine locker to store their list of wines tasted for future reference and interact with other tasters by rating wines, leaving comments, and even sending a tweet (a "twoast" in Forge parlance) to let friends know what they're drinking. Comments range from one word raves to personal reviews, like server_tim's assessment of Pio Cesare Barolo 2005 ($25/glass): "Decent Nebbiolo-based wine. Light in body with bold tannin. Best with foods that have some grease to counter the tannin/acid." Those who don't arrive with an iPhone can use the iPod touch tethered to each station, or opt for a traditional paper list. "The idea is if you want advice, you can still get that from Gino, or from your server, or even from other customers. There is also a wine attendant on duty with the Enomatic, whose job it is to describe the wines and the system, so it's all about having options," explains Malnik.
In addition to the wine attendant, The Forge has added an IT department and dedicated computer room. "We needed full-time support for the level of sophistication we have and to take full advantage of the Enomatic software program reporting, which is very impressive," says Malnik. "On my iPhone, I can adjust or program any light, change the music in every room, put on a radio station from Paris in the bar, change the satellite TV channel, or view a security camera." A dedicated IT department might seem extravagant, but the benefits far outweigh those of the veterinarian contracted to look after the songbirds in the previous incarnation of The Forge.
Whether it pertains to press, events, or just to share a drink-of-the-week recipe, The Forge puts out a steady stream of information via The Forge Facebook page, Twitter feed, and The Forge Blog. "This approach has really widened our demographic exponentially, and we want to be aware of that as we build community," says Malnik.
The robust wine program is joined by over 50 beers and eight sakes, while cocktails include classics and creative originals by Aleman, like Smoke and Fire (pineapple-infused Jose Cuervo Silver, Ilegal Mezcal, fresh lime juice, jalapeño tincture, egg white, Peychaud's Bitters). Should a large party fall in love with this drink, there is little danger of running out of the ingredients the following night, since all liquor bottles sit on scales linked to a Suxessbar system. Each ounce is tracked as it's poured for a minute-by-minute inventory.
LoSasso's menu displays a range of prices and creative organization to match that of the wines. Sixty-five items are organized as Savory Snacks, Starts, Pastas, Grains & Risotto, Principal Meats, Principal Fish & Crustaceans, Salads, and Sides. Popular creations include the lobster peanut butter & jelly of chopped fresh peanuts, onion marmalade, and diced chilled lobster on toasted brioche for $15, while signature dishes like the 21-day aged 16 ounce "Super Steak" ($52) remain among the few things left unchanged.
The Forge has matured, casting off conspicuous consumption in favor of customized consumption. Technology is everywhere, but never for technology's sake. "It can be great to improve your technology, but it's all meaningless unless you first have great food and great service. I wanted to achieve a combination that would give us the best chance for decades to come," says Malnik.