Some restaurants beckon with bright lights and fancy facades. Others prominently post alluring menus. Still others entice with contented crowds glimpsed through plate glass. As someone who spent too much time next to the record player at teen parties, however, I reserve a special fondness for the wallflowers: empty places awaiting only a diner or two to blossom. Forest Hills’s Foraga caught my eye one afternoon when my lunch bunch was cruising a commercial strip looking for a chance to unwind. We dismissed some spots as too familiar, others as too loud, but we liked the look of this bright open room full of widely spaced tables and comfy-looking white wicker furniture, and of its Asian-inspired menu. True, it was empty—not a good sign. But sometimes that portends a Cinderella.
My friends and I entered to be greeted by two disembodied voices—one Nat Cole’s, the other welcoming us. Looking around, we defined the décor as Memphis-Zen and installed ourselves at the two window tables. The voice materialized into a sassy, menu-bearing waitress who would become Foraga’s fairy godmother. In a trice, she’d taken our drink order, run down the appetizers, and explained that the mains came in six intensities: American mild, medium, and hot, and the same categories bumped up stratospherically for Thai tastes. We ordered our appetizers Thai-mild and were glad we hadn’t ventured further.
Tender alabaster rounds of sautéed calamari ($6.95) surprised with their lack of breading, then delighted with their lemony tomato sauce. The wing ding ($4.95) proved crisp chunks of fried chicken that resembled Dominican chicharron. The peppercorn-crusted seared tuna ($9.95) that we’d ordered rare arrived overdone. We persevered, enjoying its chile-zapped sesame-cilantro sauce, and knew we’d found a keeper when the godmother returned with a second order cooked properly rare, announcing that this one was on her. My friends chose their mains from the luncheon specials, which ranged from a heaping seafood salad of mesclun topped with shrimp, squid, and crab stick ($7.95) to a plain ole pita wrap beefed up with huge strips of perfectly pink steak ($8.95). I opted for banana fish from the regular menu ($13.95). In a tour de force, the waitress arrived with a packet and gently opened it, releasing a puff of steam perfumed faintly with chile and revealing flaky pieces of banana-leaf-steamed snapper and veggies, mined with tiny Thai heat bombs. As delicious as it was decorative, it told us this belle needed only encouragement to shine.
The room was still empty when I returned with a girlfriend, but Stephanie, for that was the godmother’s name, gave us a welcome warm enough for a crowd. Getting right down to it, we settled on yaki soba ($5.95), a savory and filling mix of beef, cabbage, and noodles, and an equally copious salmon tataki ($8.95). Having introduced my friend to the banana fish, I hit the jackpot again: a crisp-skinned, lemongrass-grilled snapper with an incendiary garlic-soy dipping sauce ($14.95). Discouraged by the shortage of suitors, Foraga has moved to dinner-only hours. But I’ll be filling out her dance card again. We former bench-sitters have to stick together.