Housed in the newly renovated, now eco-friendly Essex Hotel, Tribute has all the makings of a much-needed addition to the South Loop restaurant market. A menu of American comfort food made with local produce, blond wood and vaulted ceilings, great views of Grant Park—there's a good deal of savvy planning evident, but for now, anyway, there are too many poorly executed elements to pass off simply as opening jitters.
Shortly before the restaurant was to open, executive chef Brandon Baltzley—who conceived and crafted the original menu—stepped down and headed into rehab. Sous chef Lawrence Letrero (Perennial, Karyn's on Green) took over, accepting the very difficult challenge of editing Baltzley's ambitious vision to suit his own style.
If a kitchen is in over its head, just managing expectations is a good place to start. Instead it seemed like the very patient waitstaff is in the awkward position of improvising excuses for oversights and omissions. An overly creamed potato-leek soup was supposed to be garnished with crispy leeks and herbs, but came bearing only a leaf of green garnish. Our server explained that the missing and much-needed leeks were probably mixed into the soup, either that or maybe they were an heirloom variety called "crispy." On another visit a beet and smoked-trout salad arrived without the trout. This time when we brought it to our server's attention, she said the trout was in mousse form, and it was just difficult to see. She seemed surprised to learn that the kitchen had run out. If we'd just been told up front we could have focused on the fact that the simple pink beets were great on their own.
Roasted chicken with jus can be such a soulful dish, but Tribute's tribute to the classic—cosmetically tanned sous vide chicken quarters with a salty pan sauce—seems sad in comparison with the real deal. A hamachi crudo was swimming in lime juice and tasted like a white-bread version of Chilean ceviche. If it had been billed more accurately, it would have been less offensive.
It's arguable that the hamachi and the chicken can be written off as a chef's poetic license, but there's no such justification for a Slagel Farms strip steak ordered medium rare and served mostly medium well; gloopy cheddar mashed potatoes and giardiniera failed to sweeten the deal. My dining chum's duck breast came out a rubbery rare, without even a hint of crispiness to the skin. A patty melt, requested medium rare, arrived very rare—more like seared tartare—but was still delicious despite the fact that the patty wasn't warm enough to melt the American cheese.
Making items from scratch doesn't always produce a better product. Crafting your own American cheese just seems bizarre, bordering on parody. The house-made English muffin parked under the eggs Benedict brunch offering chewed like leather, and the warm shortbread cookie served with kaffir lime custard tasted past its prime, leaving a rancid butter aftertaste on the palate that not even a cup of Intelligentsia coffee blend could erase. I got the silent treatment after making my boyfriend take a bite of it—though on the walk home from dinner he finally said, "What's the opposite of lipstick on a pig?" Indeed.