Tributary Cafe is the latest restaurant to open in Fort Worth’s River East district, a gentrifying-as-we-speak area, on the east side’s Race Street, that many are hoping will evolve into the city’s next hip urban development, a la the Near Southside.
Opened in January, this new venture from chef Cindy Crowder-Wheeler is certainly a step in that direction. Like many of the Near Southside restaurants, Tributary occupies an old building — in this case, a 1940s bungalow — and specializes in an everyday cuisine, polished to a gourmet sheen.
That cuisine is Creole-style seafood, a type of food with which Wheeler is familiar, given her background as owner and chef at the Creola Cafe in Waxahachie.
She’s also a former manager at Nonna Tata, and she’s brought some of that Near Southside restaurant’s unassuming sensibility to her new place. It’s quiet and subtle, dimly lit at night, and cozy.
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Hardwood floors, long, communal benches and Windsor chairs create a warm, farmhouse-rustic vibe but with an upscale bent: White tablecloths cover each table, and servers dote. A handsome patio affords cool breezes and more legroom, and a pair of tables on the front porch might be the hottest seats in town; there’s atmosphere to spare here.
Add that to the fact that Fort Worth could definitely use more seafood (Crowder imports her fish from various parts of Louisiana and the Gulf) and it’s no wonder the city has been so quick to embrace Tributary.
The two-page menu consists of Creole and Southern staples like crawfish etouffee, fried green tomatoes and gumbo; po-boy sandwiches; a burger; hand-cut steaks; and several seafood entrees, whose stars can be grilled or blackened. A wine list covered the white and red basics, and a beer list was dominated by locals; in addition, there’s a full bar.
For an appetizer, gumbo ($5) is a good bet. Darkly colored and filled with shrimp, tiny pieces of crab and oyster meat and okra, its roux had a pleasingly complex flavor, changing from bite to bite. Less successful was the shrimp remoulade ($10), consisting of boiled shrimp, neatly stacked in a tower, whose flavor was clobbered by a too-strong Dijon mustard.
A Caesar salad was dependable if not innocuous, sparsely decorated with crunchy croutons and a light, tangy, housemade dressing. Costing just $4 and filling up a large bowl, though, it was a steal.
Crawfish etouffee ($16) was unusually oily on our first visit but had improved on our second, its roux brandishing a flavor that was both buttery and spicy. The dish’s crawfish tails had the appropriate amount of crackling bite, and white rice was silky and rich.
Since not many restaurants in Fort Worth offer it, we had hoped to try the grouper but the kitchen had run out. Our server recommended red snapper ($26) and suggested that we have it blackened. The fish itself was nicely cooked, with flaky edges and moist, supple meat. Seasoning was a little heavy-handed, though, resulting in an overly salty flavor.
Two sides accompanied the fish; both were problematic. Roasted fingerling potatoes had been overcooked to the point where they were mostly composed of gummy, tough-to-chew skin. Tiny pieces of pancetta saved the otherwise mundane peas.
Much better was a simple po-boy ($14), filled with beautifully and greaselessly fried oysters, along with lettuce, tomato and pickles. We weren’t in love with the dense and crusty baguette bread (which is served in a smaller form with most entrees) but the oyster’s terrific batter — crunchy, well-seasoned — made up for it. It came with excellent french fries — thick, hand-cut and nicely salted.
For dessert, go with the Key lime pie ($6), whose soft and slightly sweet filling comes drizzled with a housemade strawberry-raspberry sauce and topped with whipped cream.
2813 Race St.
Hours: 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; 10 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Saturday; 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday.