It couldn’t have been a less auspicious start. After a gut renovation, the Essex Hotel wanted to turn its restaurant, Tribute, into a destination. To do this, it placed its bets on a chef, Brandon Baltzley. Baltzley had no name recognition. No problem. The hope was he would gain the recognition, and recognition for the restaurant itself. But as the opening date kept getting pushed back, it became clear something was wrong. Soon, Baltzley was out, and the Chicago Tribune was running a feature story about his drug addiction and rehab. Meanwhile, Tribute tried to recover. It announced that Lawrence Letrero, formerly the sous chef, was now in the driver’s seat. But next to the story of Baltzley, a sous chef’s ascension seemed a little anticlimactic.
What is the climax at Tribute, anyway? It’s not the new room. I found myself wistful for the old digs, which better matched the Essex’s Los Angeles–circa-1960 look. Among the new touches to the room’s decor are two enormous, beehive-shaped lights that hang from the ceiling in front of the window. They look like a pair of earrings. But this is costume jewelry, not Bulgari.
There was nothing climactic about the menu, either, which read like so many other menus in the world. Beet salad, Wagyu mac and cheese, short ribs with bacon jam.
So I was surprised when, despite all this, the climax arrived with the food. A virtuous server had steered me away from the watermelon-tomato soup and toward the sweet corn custard instead. I’ll admit I was frightened. I’d tapped my spoon on one too many cloying, brûléed corn puddings already this summer. But there was no brûlée happening with this custard. Nor was there anything cloying about it. It was cool, smooth, topped with chanterelles and exhibitive of corn’s more savory edge. And that beet salad? By plating it over a smoked-trout puree, chef Letrero managed to do something impressive: He elevated it above cliché.
It’s clear Letrero is making some effort to be seasonal (that watermelon-tomato soup was a watermelon-strawberry soup earlier in the summer), but many of the entrées—such as perfectly cooked duck breast with kale and currants—had a heaviness more suited for fall. One exception was the whitefish, with its crispy skin and hints of fennel. Dessert may have provided some summer (the menu hints at details like seasonal jams), but on the night I was there only two desserts were offered, one of them a chocolate cake. The restaurant was, at the time, between pastry chefs. That might have been a detail to focus my attention on if the food hadn’t been satisfying. Luckily, that wasn’t the case.
By David Tamarkin