Tribute in Transition

It has a new menu and a new chef, but the old high standards remain the goal

Last fall, in a shift of chefs that occurs occasionally in restaurants, Don Yamauchi left Tribute to oversee two restaurants in the sparkling new MGM Grand Detroit, and Richard Travis moved down from Latitude in Bay Harbor to take over Tribute.

The arrival of a new chef at a restaurant consistently rated among metro Detroit’s top three by travel and food guides, local reviewers, and the public merits a fresh look. And a lot has been happening at Tribute, including the expected period of transition in the kitchen and the revamping of the menu.

Travis arrived in October to find that many of the sous-chefs and line chefs were gone; some had followed Yamauchi, others had moved on for a variety of reasons. He hurriedly set about rebuilding a staff. “It has been a real headache,” he says. “Only two of the original crew were left.”

Travis also immediately changed the menu, moving it away from Yamauchi’s Asian fusion cuisine and toward the more placid modern American cooking. His model? Tapawingo in Ellsworth, Mich., where he was the lead chef under Harlan “Pete” Petersen for eight years.

“I want to do food that I’m comfortable with, food you can smell before it gets to the table. And that’s not Asian fusion,” Travis says.

Asian fusion is what first distinguished Tribute, guided by Takashi Yagihashi, its founding chef, in 1996. Yagihashi is known for his brilliant combination dishes, blends of classical French training and Asian flavors and spices, all served with his dramatic eye-catching presentations.

There was great excitement when Yagihashi came to Detroit in 1996. One of Chicago’s top chefs, he had been pried off his perch at Ambria, the summit of dining in that city, to take over a start-up restaurant tucked into a nondescript suburban stretch of 12 Mile Road. The move was bewildering to many. But he did indeed lead Tribute to a national reputation, drawing out-of-town foodies and celebs from all over.

When Yagihashi left in 2004 to open a restaurant in a Las Vegas casino, Tribute’s owners brought in Yamauchi, also a Chicago-trained chef who had cooked at Le Français, Carlos, and Gordon. Today, at the MGM Grand Detroit, he runs the two new Michael Mina restaurants Saltwater and Bourbon Steak.

Travis learned to cook at Oakland Community College and Schoolcraft College’s culinary program, and after a stint in the Navy in the 1980s, he went to work at the Golden Mushroom, then eventually north to Tapawingo and Latitude.

Tribute has three big assets. The first is service, the single most consistent aspect across all three chefs. It is impeccable, friendly, and attentive without excessive formality, among the very best in Detroit. It remains so under Travis.

The second is the ambience. The look and feel of Tribute is an adventure. Architect Victor Saroki’s eclectic and futuristic design has a plushness that leaves visitors with a sense that they must be dining in extreme wealth.

The interior has the look of a galactic memorial chapel where the fallen of the Darth Vader wars are honored. The arched cathedral-like ceiling, triangular windows in the eaves, the vast allegoric modern fresco, and modern stained-glass chandeliers, all pull the eye upward, as if toward God. Tall quarter-moon shaped velvet banquettes line the dining-room walls, adding to the high-church feel. The only absence is a convocation of red-robed cardinals. Call it Our Lady of the Foie Gras.

The third element is the food. And, after the usual adjustment period, Travis seems to have generally managed to keep course with the restaurant’s original brilliance.

The amuse-bouche has become increasingly popular in American restaurants. To succeed, it must do what the words suggest: to entice you to what’s coming next. And what did come first on one visit was just that. It was classic Tapawingo: a butternut-squash gnocchi with blue-cheese cream sauce and tiny diced pieces of pan-browned pancetta, in which all the individual flavors were both distinct and worked with one another.

Travis has also introduced little twists such as a “burned” butter for the bread. (The butter is melted and browned to a point short of a burn, then whipped with regular butter.) Spread on bread, it tastes somewhere between nutty and an unsweet maple syrup.

When the first courses arrived, we were genuinely wowed. One of the best is a piece of rabbit loin wrapped in bacon, with a creamy fig polenta and a fricassee of chanterelle mushrooms that had been cooked in a reduction of balsamic vinegar. The rabbit was pan-seared lightly. And much as a seared tuna remains pink inside, the loin was translucent at the center. It was delicate but rich.

Another dish, playfully called “liver and apples,” is a terrine of foie gras served with a cider reduction and sourdough toast points and a little arugula salad and almost-sour green apple slices.

But the stunner in first courses was a single sushi-fresh giant roasted prawn (not a menu regular) cooked only about two-thirds through, so that it was still crunchy. It sat atop a crostini surrounded by what was described as a lobster bisque. In fact, it tasted more like the dense bouillabaisse soup with aioli found in the south of France. The dish is nothing short of stunning, and very much a reflection of what Tribute set out to be.

Likewise, the desserts of pastry chef Greg Stroker are exceptional: a meringue tart with passion fruit, a vibrant raspberry cake, a poached-pear sabayon with a crispy spring roll, and pumpkin-gingerbread cake with cranberry granita. All are superior in flavor and styling, maybe the very best array of desserts in Detroit.

But in the main courses, there were some difficulties, probably due in part to a new — and still uncoordinated — kitchen staff. The first was an elk and venison combination in which a pumpkin purée had been blended with too much vanilla, which overwhelmed the dish. The second was a veal chop, which was ordered “pink” and arrived beyond well done. Oddly, I had exactly the same issue with a veal chop on a visit to Tribute two years ago under Yamauchi.

The third was a confit of duck that arrived stuffed in a small hollowed-out pumpkin. The meat was dry and stringy. It appeared to have been separated from its fat. Because of these issues, I made a second visit and ordered the confit again. This time it was totally different. I got an entire leg of moist, plump, delicate duck meat, a completely opposite experience.

Other main-course plates were on par with the wonderful starters and the desserts. Among them: a seared sea bass wrapped in pancetta and served with puréed potatoes touched up with a little truffle oil, sautéed porcini mushrooms and asparagus, and served with a porcini cream sauce.

Travis has introduced such standards as a beef tenderloin with Boursin cheese and gratin potatoes, and a rack of Colorado lamb in a wine-reduction sauce.

Tribute is undergoing what is likely the most significant transition of its 11-plus years. The simple fact is that the first chef, Yagihashi, was a genius who set a near impossible standard to follow. Yamauchi, who is very talented, tried to do so with mixed results.

That leaves Travis with a dilemma, which he admits. He says openly that he has no intention of imitating his predecessors.

As Tribute shifts, it has a lot going for it: enough reputation, a fun ambience, and exquisite service to sustain a new menu.

The only question is: Can it maintain the high standard in food it set years ago? If it does, its position will hold. It’s certainly heading there, and the new Tribute is well worth a visit.

31425 W. 12 Mile Rd., Farmington Hills; 248-848-9393. L Mon.-Fri., D Tue.-Sat.