Melting Point: Forge in the Forest’s old-school vibe rocks, new menu fails to impress.

Place, Setting: The twisting foliage, brick fireplaces and ample garden patio create a feel few places can approach.

The Forge in the Forest’s hand-carved mahogany bar serves up the Sunday usuals: Bloody Marys, mimosas, bellinis and the occasional beer. There’s even an old guy in a Grateful Dead T-shirt who looks like he’s been sitting at the bar since it opened four decades ago, insisting to a man who is clearly not Michael Phelps that he looks like the most bemedaled Olympian in world history. 


Look around the Forge and you see more historic standouts – like the anvil, vise and hearth in the center of the saloon, testaments to the Forge’s origins as a blacksmith-cum-mayor’s office. You also see European tourists eating hamburgers with fork and knife in one of the two spacious patio dining areas. Elsewhere, there’s a stone-floored dining room with a wall of French doors and the mysteriously spelled “Vinoteck” banquet room and its artificial grape clusters.


You also see a lot of purebred dogs accompanying their owners and chowing down on canine entrees from the restaurant’s Dog Pound Menu. Foods for fido are essentially small portions of grilled meat, from $3.95 for a hotdog for your dog (all beef, no worries) to $12.95 for a 6-ounce steak. There’s also kibble ($2.95).


The quirky decor, the patios and the pooches all blend together, forged into a veritable Carmel institution that indelibly pleases the tourists, comforts the regulars and inspires our readers to vote it Best Place for Outdoor Dining with the relentlessness of the Carmel fog. With the recent addition of Chef Jean-Paul Peluffo, something else was inspired. A question: How’s the new food?


On a Sunday visit, Everlast, Sublime and other artists of that nostalgic 1990s ilk played, and the giant LCD TVs over the bar show muted football games of both American-style and the variety the Rest of the World identifies with. The manager who greeted us was a likable guy but didn’t know the ingredients of “the special very spicy chef sauce” that comes with The Forge Special brunch item, despite the menu’s promise that those who try it are “part of the family.”


The Sunday brunch menu is brief, consisting mainly of eggs and a specials menu featuring half a dozen options – those needing greasy goodness will be revived by aforementioned special ($15), a skillet containing an oily medley of fried potatoes, bacon, bell peppers and onions, topped with three fried eggs. The sauce that comes with has a fiery kick and smoky chipotle flavor that would play well on a sandwich, too. Tray of Gravlaks ($14) sounds like an item that might be found in World of Warcraft, but it’s The Forge’s take on Nordic-style dill-cured salmon, served with a cube of Safeway-accessible boursin cheese, capers, bread and some lettuce and tomato. The salmon alone was a touch too acerbic, but combined with a bite of bread, cheese and caper it improved. But the dish’s presentation was remarkably lackluster: a pile of unctuous slabs of fish drowning in a sea of generic accoutrements. 


No brunch is complete without a rendition of the Bloody Mary, and here The Forge offers the cocktail with house-made spicy tomato juice ($8), or the spicier Demon Mary ($9), which appears to be same as the original plus a blob of Dijon mustard stirred in for the extra buck. Regular coffee sells for $2.95, while the booze-laden variety goes for $8 to $9; Cafe Carmel, a blend of coffee, Chambord, Frangelico and whipped cream ($8.50) seems appealing. 


A week earlier the Sixth Street-side patio was nearly full, a fair mix of tourists and locals with dogs. 


One of the specials that day was a pan-seared salmon sandwich with green-chili chutney and heirloom tomatoes ($12). Aside from the questionable use of the word heirloom – I know a restaurant-grade hothouse when I see one – the sandwich was great, the sweet-and-spicy chutney pairing with the fish much better than expected. 


The daily menu is Carmel-priced – in addition to an $18 chocolate chip cookie (big enough for a crowd), the offerings range from burgers ($12) to pizza ($10-$14) and skirt steak ($24) to crème brûlée ($8) – and mildly eclectic. Some of the more novel items listed are duck empanadas ($8), chicken satay lollipops ($8.50), and Reuben egg rolls ($11).


The Forge is probably the sort of place where the winning bet is to order a burger (fork and knife optional) or something equally uncomplicated. But not the pizza. The Forge Special ($14, not to be confused with the identically named brunch item), is thin-crusted and top-heavy, overloaded with way too many caramelized onions, grilled artichokes, pancetta pieces, Kalamata olives, arugula leaves, jack cheese, and a housemade tomato sauce that would do better with Chef Boyardee. 


According to one local travel agent, the French onion soup ($8) is the ticket to paradise here, however the menu’s claim of “award winning seafood chowder” ($12) proved too tempting. But it was more like bisque, thin and not hearty at all. It also contains bacon, which should printed on the menu. The Reuben egg rolls were the highlight. The deep-fried wontons are stuffed with plenty of corned beef and swiss cheese and are presented with colorful cabbage sauerkraut and a side of Russian dressing.


The tourists will keep coming, and the regulars have never gone away, and that should be enough to keep The Forge around for a long time. With a reputation that precedes itself and ambiance right at home in Carmel-by-the-Sea, the only thing left to improve on is the food, which at this point needs more attention than a Jack Russell terrier. 


FORGE IN THE FOREST Corner of Sixth and Junipero, Carmel • 11:30am-9pm Sun-Thurs; 11:30am-10pm Fri-Sat. • 624-2233, www.forgeintheforest.com/index.php

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