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Fora is a Hidden Gem on Naples' Restaurant Row

Fora Good Time
The imaginative, delicious tasting menus star at this hidden gem of Naples’ restaurant row

In a city as vast as Long Beach, the best restaurants are usually the tiny ones owned by the chefs who cook your food. Since most are so often hidden in disparate parts of the city, I liken them to truffles in a forest of crimini mushrooms. Hans Till’s Fora Restaurant is one of those proverbial Long Beach truffles. It is hard to spot, even though it’s on restaurant row in Naples. As you drive by, you won’t see Fora’s postage-stamp-size sign until it’s too late. But trust me: Fora’s beef stroganoff is worth the inevitable U-turns and the hunt for parking.

At first, the dish looks unremarkable, possibly the least eye-catching plate of food on the menu. Dumped onto a plain white bowl, it is simply noodles, beef and two kinds of mushrooms lubed in brown sauce. But it is as good as the restaurant is small. The fingers of meat will be the most tender you’ll bite into, undoubtedly excised from a top-grade filet mignon and so smooth you’d think it was foie gras. Then there’s the gravy: a simple pan sauce coaxed to ambrosia—nicely tart and so addictive you’ll want to squeegee up the last drops of it with a piece of bread or your finger.

The substance sticks admirably to the slightly coarse outer texture of the broad pappardelle noodles—as wide as belts, cooked tooth-tender, the closest thing you get to Italian cuisine at Fora. This is despite the fact that they give you olive oil and balsamic vinegar to dip your bread in instead of butter to smear. Everything else on the menu reads like it came off the cuff, the kind of cooking that defies classification.

I’m eyeing something intriguingly called “tobacco onion,” included in their chicken entrée, for my next meal. And on their seared tuna, “black forbidden rice” is molded by an upturned bowl and chews like a cross between corn kernels and gum. The rest of the plate works to elevate the fish, which would’ve been ordinary otherwise.

There’s a fruity plum-wine gastrique smeared in an artful swoosh, a finely diced mango salsa in a diminutive bowl and, finally, dots of wasabi-infused cream, in case you’re used to eating your tuna in a sushi bar.

Fora also does a different tasting menu nightly, featuring four dishes you won’t see on the regular list. Oenophiles should opt for the wine pairings for a nominal fee. A small alcove in the middle of the restaurant holds enough bottles to have you swirling and sniffing your glasses in bliss the whole night.

But the most admirable part of the tasting menu is that the restaurant does not require everyone at the table to order it if one person does. This bucks a lamentable all-or-nothing trend with tasting menus I’ve seen at places such as Michael Mina’s Stonehill Tavern.

On the night of our visit, the set meal started with an aggressively seasoned grilled prawn that was wrapped with smoked salmon in lieu of bacon and surrounded by three different vinaigrettes applied in colorful swipes. The blood-orange was the fruitiest; the balsamic, the darkest; and the beet, the sweetest. A salad of Bibb lettuce, crumbled chunks of Cheddar and pine nuts followed. And then a main course of John Dory, pan sautéed to a crusty brown, sitting in a salty pool of its pan juices, flanked with cooked spinach and a chilled tuft of polenta.

Later came a sampler of three desserts in tiny cups: a crème brûlée with a too-thick burnt-sugar crust, fresh berries on a lacy almond-cookie basket and, the best of all, a deeply chocolatey mousse-like pudding.

But what you really want . . . no, scratch that—what you actually need are the soufflés. Order them as you order your dinner and be dazzled with the variety of flavors from which you get to choose. Starting with Grand Marnier and vanilla, the list goes on longer than I care to detail here. The chocolate is always dependable and arrives in a skyscraping poof that is structurally stable only until you pierce the top, whereupon a plume of steam escapes and the fun begins.

Everyone orders it, even after doing the tasting menu. And that’s another thing: Although the restaurant is small, it is not undiscovered. As such, reservations are advisable, though, so far, easy to get—easier, that is, than finding the restaurant itself.

Fora Restaurant, 5730 E. Second St., Long Beach, (562) 856-9494; www.fora-naples.com. Open Mon.-Sun., 5-10 p.m. Entrées, $18-$29; four-course tasting menu, $46 without wine; $57 with.

 
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