Three years and one fire into Michael Forbes’ Brookside residency, the place has truly arrived

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Having dined at Michael Forbes Bar & Grille five times since its recent reopening, I feel confident saying that, three years into its run, the place is at last living up to its potential. It took only a nearly ruinous electrical fire to get there.

After that April mishap caused owner Forbes Cross to shut down his venue for repairs, a funny thing happened: This address — where the popular Sharp’s slid into an increasingly shabby decline before a merciful close — finally got the makeover it had needed all along. A room that had benefited from a topcoat of attention when Cross took it over now shows the felicitous results of significant labor: long-covered ceilings restored to their proper height, original terrazzo floors emerging from long eclipse, bathrooms eradicated of grimness. Its feel alone makes Cross’ 63rd Street Forbes 2.0 his most surefooted restaurant since he opened Parkway 600 in the 1990s.

It’s also his best since those days.

Mind you, the menu hasn’t changed a great deal. Cross and his son, Matt — the restaurant’s chef — have simply streamlined a grill-centered menu that still recalls the original Michael Forbes Grill of three decades ago. That Waldo mainstay was never a fancy restaurant — or even a particularly imaginative one. But Cross père, then in his 30s, was already showing what he had learned in his years with the Kansas City-based Gilbert/Robinson chain: Give diners what they want, and do it right every time.

I haven’t liked some of the post–Michael Forbes restaurants that Cross has launched. In fact, I hated the ersatz, wildly inconsistent Michael Forbes restaurant that landed in Overland Park in 2003 — and went away the same year.

“It was the wrong location,” Cross tells me with a sigh. “That wasn’t our clientele.”

To find his clientele again, in 2012 he snapped up the former Sharp’s, in the heart of Brookside, where he could count on a chance to draw not just regulars but die-hards. “It’s a real neighborhood that wanted the kind of food and atmosphere we could offer,” he says.

The food, sure: The fried catfish (still 1 pound, still deboned tableside), the sour-cream apple pie, the Greek salad, the moderately priced steaks that made a name for Forbes Cross back in 1985 — they all were, and are, big sellers here. They’re damned tasty, too. But the atmosphere is only now, post-renovation, truly inviting.

And one should feel invited when one decides to eat a whole fried chicken. You want the room on your side.

“Our customers like big portions,” Forbes Cross says. “They like taking leftovers home.” But when it comes to that fried-chicken dinner — the bird perfectly crisp, the deal perfectly affordable — friends at the table have a way of robbing you of future cold-bird snacking.

What also vanished, after a friend and I set out merely to sample: a newer poultry offering, this one consisting of a plump, moist breast glazed in a discreetly boozy Marsala wine sauce and sided with toasted lemon-spinach orzo. Ditto an aggressively rich but full-flavored dish that tossed rigatoni with sizzling strips of sautéed steak, mushrooms, red onion and garlic cream, the surface then scattered with crumbles of punchy gorgonzola.

Cross had told me how tired he was of hearing his patrons (and curmudgeons like me) complain about the dearth of really good Reuben sandwiches around here, so Matt Cross now brines and slow-braises his own corned beef for the Forbes Reuben. He piles the meat onto a slightly sour rye — which tastes the way rye is supposed to — with Swiss cheese, sweet sauerkraut and his own Thousand Island dressing. It’s not cheap, but it’s excellent.

The new carnitas tacos are closer to Wall Street in sensibility (and price) than they are to Southwest Boulevard, but the pork is sumptuously tender, tarted up here with just the right notes of hot, salty, sour and creamy (pickled onion, jalapeño, queso fresco and cilantro). Order two or three and you have a suitably light meal — light, that is, for diners like me, who habitually overindulge here on such old-school starters as chicken wings. Forbes and Matt Cross know that this is what their patrons want: food that is not too swell and not too plebeian but is — like this Brookside location — right square in the middle. If the fried artichoke hearts I (still) like to order, splashed in astringently tart lemon-garlic butter, are a vulgarian’s approach to appreciating the glories of the Cynara cardunculus, then color me unmannerly — but save me a seat at Michael Forbes Bar & Grille.

Categories: Food & Drink, Restaurant Reviews