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Forte: From Spanish to East European on the West Side

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“It’s the food we were brought up with at home. You don’t find much of it out here...”

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Traditional words from a seasoned restaurateur, but Forte owner Nina Manchev, 27, is far different. It’s one thing to bring your favorites from Italy, China, even Ethiopia…but Bulgaria? Just one of the cuisines Forte specializes in, where small plates from the Slavic territory come together with innovative Spanish tapas for a worldly experience, and prices that speak to a far more casual concept than this vibrant spot delivers.

“We want to keep it fun, creative. It’s why I love what I do and where I work,” says Manchev.

Don’t be fooled by Forte’s humble look, or its location in an ethnic strip mall. Walk past the cute outdoor patio and the door opens to a loungy tavern-meets artsy coffee shop setup, where plush chairs and circular tables give the small space an open feel. A small glass wine cellar sits in the corner next to a chalkboard-painted wall, displaying specialty sips and fun graphics. Festive flare completes the rustic interior, perfect for accommodating live music and parties, which happen quite frequently here.

“There’s a nice European community around us and they’re glad to have a taste of home,” says Manchev, who opened the restaurant four years ago with her father. As we spoke, this large, friendly man was pouring shots of deep blue Sambuca [licorice-like, similar to Jagermeister] to guests, bellowing with laughter. The scene came straight out of a foreign film.

The soft eyes and soothing tone must have come from her mother.

Not her sense of humor, however. Forte became famous after Guy Fieri visited on ‘Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.’ The Manchevs’ personalities shined when they ‘Punk’d’ the TV celebrity with unexpected hilarity. Nina pretended to speak very little English upon meeting Fieri [in reality you couldn’t even tell that it’s her second language], and gave him a scare by staging an outlandish Bulgarian shouting match with her father. They enjoyed some excellent laughs once the joke was up, and commemorate Fieri’s visit today with an animation of his face next to the menu items he tried on air.

As for the food, it’s nothing short of authentic home cooking. European comfort food holds true to its title with Hungarian goulash, succulent beef and lamb confit, rich vereniki [homemade dumplings] and a beef stroganoff ragu that truly takes your palate across the Atlantic.

“We do choose our ingredients carefully,” said Manchev. She chooses to stick with small-scale suppliers that import straight from Europe. “Everything is hormone-free and all that other stuff people love to talk about.” She’s laughing, but serious.

The care shows, from a mixed grill of exotic sausages to fresh-baked Bulgarian bread, presented in cute strainers and finished at the table with olive oil and foreign spices. On the Spanish side, Forte’s bacon-wrapped stuffed dates, gambas al ajillo [garlic shrimp] and chorizo con vino, simmered in a red wine reduction, delivers robust flavor with zero ‘Americanization.’

An extensive bar takes up nearly a third of the restaurant, reflecting the place’s fun attitude by mixing up eclectic and delicious drinks from across the globe. Specialty cocktails like the G.F. Forte Jackass, served in a copper mug, uses house-infused ginger vodka for crisp, refreshing taste and zero bite. Sangria and variations on martinis and magaritas are favorites, but nothing compares to the ‘Gypsy Juice,’ where a secret recipe packs a ridiculous punch without you ever guessing there was any alcohol in your glass.

The restaurant’s momentum keeps building. In addition to its feature on ‘Triple D,’ Forte has appeared on Eating Las Vegas’s “50 essential restaurants” list two years running and is looking to add a location downtown.

“When you’re on the Strip or looking to appeal to a huge group of customers, you’re going to have to make things more familiar,” Manchev said. You can tell, though, that behind that warm smile is a force not to be reckoned with. “Here, we don’t dumb things down.”

Forte is located just south of the intersection at Rainbow and Flamingo, near across from Pepe’s Tacos. Open Tuesday-Saturday from noon-10:30 p.m., Sunday-Monday from 5-10 p.m. Happy hour Tuesday-Saturday 3-6 p.m. Out-the-door price for is ~$35/person. This review was comped. For more information call (702) 220-3876 or visit Forte online.

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