Tribute restaurant makes grand entrance in Detroit

Tribute restaurant makes grand entrance in Detroit

Carolyn Walkup

FARMINGTON HILLS, Mich.–Tribute, a new restaurant as flashy as a Corvette Stingray, has made a grand entrance onto the metropolitan Detroit fine dining scene.

Owned by the Epoch Enterprises division of the Wisne family’s Progressive Tool Corp., one of the world’s largest producers of automobile assembly lines, Tribute is positioned as a hangout for Detroit’s hip upper echelon. With check averages running about $75, Tribute is clearly a spot where only the elite can afford to eat with any regularity.

Family patriarch Larry Wisne hired his favorite maltre d’, Mickey Bakst, from the acclaimed Tapawingo in the rural resort of Ellsworth Mich., to direct operations. “He gave me the freedom to do whatever I wanted,” said Bakst, who has worked the front-of-the-house in restaurants from California to Alaska.

Opening costs totaled close to $3 million for the 88-seat restaurant, Bakst said. The unassuming-looking building on a heavily trafficked northwest suburban highway was completely gutted and transformed into a theatrical, contemporary restaurant and bar.

Everything was custom made, from the high-backed upholstered booths to the napkin rings, crafted of spun gold-plated wire set with uncut amethysts and quartz. “Untraditional” is Bakst’s favorite descriptIon for the restaurant, which strives to remove any perceived stuffiness from its fine dining image.

“[Wisne] wants to build a nationally recognized, world-class restaurant,” said Bakst, who arranged to fly in chef candidates from across the country. “I was looking for a second-level chef who didn’t have his own place but wanted to make his name known.”

The name of Takashi Yagihasi, chef de cuisine at Ambria in Chicago, came up three times during the search, including once at the James Beard House in New York. After a series of interviews and tastings, Yagihasi was hired.

“I was a partner at Ambria the last three years, but I needed a change-something different for my cooking career ” Yagihasi said. “Ambria is great, but sometimes there were 200 people on Saturday night. Sometimes 200 people is too much.”

Yagihasi’s style of food is contemporary French, influenced by learning sessions in kitchens that include Pierre Gagnaire, Atpege, Espadon and the Ritz in France; Masa’s in San Francisco; and Yoshi’s Cafe and the former Les Plumes in Chicago. He credits his boss at Ambria, Gabino Sotelino, with teaching him a great deal as well as with giving him the opportunities to study at many of those restaurants.

He brought three former colleagues he had worked with at Ambria with him to Tribute: pastry chef Tanya Fallon and sous chefs Tim Voss and Ann Spillman.

Yagihasi’s kitchen makes all dishes a la minute. “At Ambria we did that with some things but not everything,” the chef said.

Examples from the opening menu are appetizers of diver-caught sea scallops with sweet onions, celeriac remoulade and white bean veloute, $14; massed and lightly smoked Sonoma foie gras, caramelized margo and julienne of Japanese pear with citrus glaze, $19; and a tasting of six domestic caviars with brioche, $28.

Entrees include grilled Maine salmon with confit of eggplant, marinated cucumber, fennel and daikon sprouts, $28 roasted rack of lamb with sweet garlic and rosemary, saffron black olive cabbage, ratatouille, potato puree and curry-carrot jus, $30; and rosehip-glazed duck breast with braised jicama, red cabbage and potato, wild rice with tart fruits and fricassee of wild mushroom, $29.

“We have to adapt somewhat to the market,” Bakst said, noting that the Midwestern meat-and-potatoes tradition still exists. However, Tribute’s well-traveled clientele has eaten at some of the world’s finest restaurants, he said, so most are knowledgeable about food and wine.

He expects the six-seat chef’s table in the kitchen, not yet open, to be booked months in advance. “Nobody else is doing that here,” Bakst noted. Reservations for weekends in the main dining room already are booked through July.

His biggest challenge, finding staff, was exacerbated by the area’s amuenee and the lack of public transportation for potential workers who come from other areas and don’t have cars. A stickler for good service Bakst interviewed 136 server candidates for eight positions.

As proud as he is of the new restaurant, Bakst admitted, “We’ve got a long way to go.” The flurry of local media attention meant that everything had to go smoothly as soon as the doors opened but a few glitches were inevitable.

Bakst projects annual sales of $3.5 million. The restaurant is closed Sundays and Mondays and will do only private parties at lunch.

Even without much convention and tourism business the Detroit market can support several restaurants of Tribute’s caliber because of the auto industry, Bakst said. “We get tremendous business from the auto industry, which brings visitors from all over the world,” he explained.

Epoch Enterprises also owns Too Chez in nearby Novi, a somewhat more casual, contemporary American restaurant. Plans are in the works to open a third restaurant in downtown Birmingham.

COPYRIGHT 1996 Reproduced with permission of the copyright holder. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.

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