The England captain finished after superb assists from Dejan Kulusevski and substitute Richarlison and while Forest dominated for long periods and had the lion's share of possession, they managed just one shot on Hugo Lloris' goal. Welcome to the Premier League.
Kulusevski's clever reverse ball to Kane after five minutes was so impressive because the Swede clearly had an easier option to his left in Ivan Perisic, and Richarlison's assist for Spurs' late clincher was sublime.
The substitute hunted down possession on the left touchline after Ryan Sessegnon had squandered a good opening, and sent an outside-of-the-boot ball on to the head of Kane, who moved level with Andy Cole as the joint-third highest scorer in Premier League history with his 201st career goal.
Kane's pedigree was ultimately the difference between the sides, although he showed he is fallible when Dean Henderson saved his tame second-half penalty after a crazy handball by Steve Cook, who somehow avoided a red card.
The scoreline, though, did not reflect the flow of the match and, not for the the first time this season, Spurs were second best for long periods.
It feels uncharitable to criticise Antonio Conte given results but the question is surely how long they can continue to accrue points while giving up so much ground to opponents.
The facts are that Spurs have won three and drawn one this season - title-challenging form - and this result took them joint-second in the table.
Yet, for the third game running, after the draw at Chelsea and win over Wolves, Spurs were forced onto the back foot by a more purposeful side.
Roared on by a fantastic atmosphere at the City Ground, Forest pressed and harried Spurs' back three and overran their midfield, suggesting Steve Cooper had learned from the way Chelsea and Wolves approached Conte's side.
That said, the hosts were still limited to half-chances and the only time they managed to extend Lloris was a long-range effort from Lewis O'Brien in the first half.
Despite their lack of possession, Spurs by contrast had further big chances, with Heung-min Son firing straight at Henderson and Kulusevski going close with two trademark curling efforts.
It was not entirely convincing, though, and allowing Forest 17 shots spoke to how much of the ball the hosts saw in the opposition half.
On the one hand then, Spurs ground out another huge result despite clearly not being at their best, again demonstrating a resilience and canniness which was missing at times last season. If this is Spurs when below par, imagine how good they will be when they get going.
On the other, this level of performance does not feel sustainable long-term and they surely need to establish more control in matches. Playing on the counter-attack is clearly part of Conte’s strategy but it is also true that his side were too passive and often sloppy, allowing Forest to get their tails up in the middle third of the game.If they keep playing like this, Spurs may come unstuck when they face a side with more of a cutting edge in attack.
Certainly, there is now even more of a case for starting Richarlison in place of the out-of-form Son and handing Yves Bissouma - a late sub again - a full debut in midfield.
Those changes will surely be part of Conte's thinking for Wednesday's visit to West Ham, the start of a gruelling run of midweek fixtures before the international break. Spurs go into that run in a strong position, even if performances could clearly improve.