By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 09.29.11
It couldn’t have been an easy summer for Trace. Along with the W Austin Hotel in which it resides, the restaurant had to close for a few days after glass fell from some of the balconies on the hotel tower. I had planned to launch Fed Man Walking with a review of the restaurant in August, but it didn’t seem fair so soon after it reopened. Around the same time, a woman who worked as a hostess at Trace was found dead in a ventilation shaft at a restaurant across town. Hard times for any family.
Trace was in a rough spot to begin with. Many of us saw it as a last-minute filler for the restaurant space in the W, a space that at one time was going to be a Spanish concept restaurant called Canteen from Uchi’s Tyson Cole. But rather than becoming just a hotel dining hall, Trace hired chef Paul Hargrove and made waves by adding Valerie Broussard as an on-staff “forager” to build relationships with local growers and ranchers. Like caterers at a freshman design society’s first cocktail bender, they’ve put together a menu of thoughtful food against a background all haute and heavy.
It’s hard to separate Trace from the W Hotel lounges that circle and feed into it like baroque predator fish. They’re by turns garish and creepy, from one washed in red that crushes your rods and cones to one where the ceiling is filigreed with thick rococo ceiling moldings and Persian-style pillows scattered among the low sofas. I call that one the Milk Bar, from “A Clockwork Orange.” The red one is Dr. Beelzebub’s Waiting Room. A third is like a house in Malibu owned by people with lots of money and no taste, with faux rag rugs, baroque white woven patio chairs and vaguely African side tables. It’s separated from the Milk Bar by a clear fireplace that burns even in the summer, ostensibly to warm us up from how cold the place makes us feel. The only room where I feel at home is the LP alcove, where hundreds of albums fill shelves like a library at Ben & Jerry’s house.
This is a restaurant to serve a hotel, first and foremost, so you’ll see a mix of suits and shorts, straps and sandals, sacred and profane. It contributes to the cacophonous sensory impression of Trace and the W Hotel lobby in general. I remember my first visit to the restaurant, seeing a middle-aged man who looked like a hotel guest catching dinner out of necessity. I watched him shift uncomfortably as he looked over the wooden tablet upon which Trace presents its menu. Frustrated, he told the waiter, “I don’t see anything on here for me,” and he apologized and left. I sympathized, thinking that if I’d been spending my own money rather than drawing from my expense account, I might have felt the same way. The menu’s pretense of “farmed, foraged and hunted” can feel forced and precious, and I wanted to follow that guy out and take him someplace for a chicken-fried steak or a meatloaf plate over at Hoover’s so he wouldn’t think the rest of Austin had grown too garishly modern for its own good.
The main dining room is a trainwreck of shattered glass mirrors, mismatched white classical chairs and painted silver flowers that look like bulletholes. In that room one night, an Adult Top 40 soundtrack collided with thumping house music from a party deck upstairs. The effect was like rowdy neighbors throwing a kegger while you’re trying to have a nice dinner.
The “Milk Bar” room started to fill before 5 on a weekday. It was time for SIP, an acronym for Social Interactive Playtime, when small plates and a specialty cocktail go for $5. Having had good luck with house charcuterie on a dinner visit, I ordered boudin for $5, a long link with acrid smoke and the texture an Elgin sausage with rice. Tender chile-braised pork tostadas with sweetened tomato pico and black beans made an excellent $5 bar snack.
A cucumber-jalapeño lemonade normally priced at $11 was the $5 SIP special, a refreshing blend of local Tito’s vodka with a background heat to back up its grassy cucumber primaries. It’s strong, and maybe a few of them would have put me in a more receptive mood. But I’m never in the right mood to see a dog in the room where I’m eating and drinking. Any thoughts I had of forgiving the whole hot mess of Trace and its anterooms evaporated when they let in a customer on a leash. Dog people: We get it, OK? You’ve already infiltrated our restaurant patios. Can we reserve the indoors for the two-legged animals?
The SIP prices don’t apply in the dining room, I was told, but the table next to mine qualified, lying just beyond an open wall of windows. I’ve never held high regard for happy hour prices that apply in some parts of a restaurant and not in others, especially just one table away.
I decided against a breakfast visit after seeing that a basic set-up of eggs, bacon, potatoes, toast, juice and coffee was $18. A bowl of cereal was $8; an order of French toast $13. Those are prices you might expect to see for room service. Dinner entrees start in the mid-$20s and roll to the mid-$30s. At lunch, sandwiches are $12-$15, and main courses go for $13-$19.
Rabbit pâté has been a feature at Trace since it opened, as part of a club sandwich. It’s a rough-cut country style, a good way to appreciate the rangy nature of the meat. There wasn’t enough apple chutney to make a flavor impact, and the sandwich needed something sweet and aromatic to balance the saltiness of the pâté and bacon. At first it needed bacon, too, because it was left off. The waiter wanted to take the whole plate back to fix the problem, a professional gesture I declined. It’s hard to argue with a slice of heirloom tomato the color of a sunset, but I’d have liked bread that was less crackly and more dense, because it made for an awkwardly messy handful.
For $12, the sandwich came with a dish of pickled cucumbers, cornichons and cauliflower plus a side of shoestring-thin crisp flies with a hint of garlic. Neither I nor my waiter knew that fries came with the sandwich, notable only because I’d also ordered a side of chickpea fries ($7) to round out lunch. Who cares if they were superfluous starch? They brought thick planks of creamed chickpea with a paper-thin fried shell, a subtle turn on more proletariat fries, with a rose-colored dish of garlicky red pepper romesco sauce.
At dinner, Trace shrugs off its cocktail shawl and puts on an apron. A snack plate with beef tongue pastrami, deviled eggs, fried olives, nice cheese and bacon-wrapped figs with grilled bread was $14 for two, served on a rustic wooden plank. There was roasted chicken with crispy skin and sausage and peppers ($24) and two dishes with foam, including a workmanlike grilled fish with vegetables for $28 and a bowl of hand-rolled garganelli pasta with well-cooked squid, shrimp and mussels, which we ordered as a half-plate first course for $15. From a wine list of about 75 bottles, we went with a crisp Spanish Albariño by Paco and Lola for $36. The waiter iced it tableside and refilled our glasses with precise symmetry.
Dessert is a chance to play it safe or play it smart. A safe option is “drunken doughnuts,” a dish of fried dough balls with dipping sauces of vodka whipped cream, tequila chile fudge and bourbon caramel that’s not afraid of a little whiskey breath. On one visit, a waiter talked to us about Trace’s housemade ice creams, that a sampler of three was an option even though it’s not on the dessert menu. Armed with that insider’s tip, I played it smart with a trio of tarragon, pretzel and tequila-pineapple ice creams ($7) with a decent cup of black coffee. The three little dishes were a short course in sweet, savory and salty desserts, the tarragon in the lead with its anise-evoking mellow glow.
One night, a break from 100-degree temperatures made it possible to open the wide glass walls onto the street, and the AC was strong enough to form an invisible barrier, allowing the simultaneous indulgences of the indoors with a view of the Second Street District as it eased into its evening groove.
Right away, I liked that Trace offered smaller versions of two main courses appropriate for the weather: a summer risotto done Caprese style with tomatoes, mozzarella and radicchio for $15 and a small portion of grilled Gulf shrimp with compressed melon for the same price. A New Zealand Brancott sauvignon blanc ($8) from a by-the-glass list of about 20 worked well with both entrees, cutting through the richness of the risotto and the four-pepper oil on the shrimp.
Both were beautiful plates. Three shrimp intertwined in a dance of white and coral, with pearls of honeydew and cantaloupe and long shanks of watermelon, each tasting like a textbook description of its mother fruit. The dish was layered with baby Romaine and thin, leafy slices of prosciutto, with a refined smoke to play off the shrimp’s fleshy ocean air. They were cooked to an ideal, barely opaque state and deftly cut along the middle to give up more cooking surface, more flavor from a sear of pepper and herb. A smoked kaffir lime curd that hovered somewhere between ginger and lemon pulled the elements together.
I was surprised to see a bountiful fried squash blossom on top of the risotto, a burst of batter and orange and exotic floral. It was an ideal textural counterpoint to the creamy risotto-mozzarella base. Like nuggets of gold, tiny cherry tomatoes had cooked just below the surface, and they burst with acidic joy in the tangled cheese. It’s one of the best risotto dishes I’ve eaten in Austin, a seasonal dish whose eventual fade-away will be one of the few unwelcome casualties of summer’s eventual end.
200 Lavaca St. at the W Austin Hotel. 542-3660, www.traceaustin.com.
Hours: Breakfast 6:30 to 11 a.m. Monday-Friday, 7:30 to 10:30 Saturday-Sunday. Lunch 11:30 to 2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday. Brunch 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday-Sunday. Open for dinner daily at 5:30 p.m.
Rating: 2.5 stars (out of 5)
Austin Restaurant Week: Trace is part of ARW, which marks its second four-day run Oct. 2-5. Trace is doing a two-course lunch for $15 and a three-course dinner for $35. More than 50 other places are offering three-course dinners for $25-$35, with some ARW sites also doing lunch or brunch for $10-$15. Full list at www.restaurantweekaustin.com.
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)