Trace at the W Hotel
Food so local it could run for City Council
Reviewed by Kate Thornberry, Fri., April 8, 2011
Mon.-Thu., 6:30am-10pm; Fri., 6:30am-2pm; Sat., 7:30am-11pm; SDun., 7:30am-10pm
Trace at the W Hotel200 Lavaca, 542-3660
Breakfast: Monday-Friday, 6:30-11am;
Lunch: Monday-Friday, 11:30am-3pm
Dinner: Sunday-Thursday, 5:30-10pm;
In my grandmother's time, if you wanted to impress someone or simply wanted a really good meal (and didn't mind paying for it), you went to the fanciest hotel in town and dined in the hotel dining room. Read any American novel published between 1900 and midcentury, and this truism is reflected there as well. Sadly, by the time my grandmother was taking me out for the occasional impressive luncheon in the Eighties, hotel restaurants had, for the most part, become rather dreadful. Possibly because of the immense volume of food they prepare, they were among the first to switch from fresh, locally grown ingredients to the huge national food-service suppliers, ushering in an era of perfect looking, relatively flavorless meals and buffets, creepily similar no matter where in America you were – Stepford meals.
Fortunately, nearly a decade ago, the pendulum began to swing back, and many upscale hotels got serious about turning their restaurants into destinations again, hiring reputable chefs and giving them a freer hand. At the present, several of Austin's most respected dining establishments are located in impressive Downtown hotels, and Trace at the recently opened W Hotel is definitely aiming to be counted among their number.
Although many restaurants in W Hotels worldwide are leased out to third parties, Austin's high level of culinary sophistication prompted the hotel giant to do things differently here. Chef Nadine Thomas, an ardent proponent of seasonal and local sourcing, was hired as executive chef for the entire hotel, and chef Paul Hargrove, a like-minded culinary star, was put in charge of Trace. A menu was designed that relies so absolutely on locally grown, pastured, grass-fed, seasonal, crafted, and foraged ingredients that a full-time position of "forager" was needed to seek out and obtain the rarest and highest quality ingredients to be found hereabouts. "The number of people who are interested in, and even insistent upon seasonal and organic ingredients just keeps expanding," says Thomas. "Once businesspeople and other travelers experience the difference, it becomes something that they are actively looking for."
Valerie Broussard, who holds the position of forager, is on a first-name basis with 20 to 30 local farmers and suppliers. "I keep up with what is coming into season and how much is available," she explains. "Our focus isn't just on locality, but on sustainability, practices, and standards. Every choice we make is a conscious decision."
The menu changes gradually with the seasons, so it is possible that the dishes I describe below may be subtly or entirely changed in a few short weeks, or even days. Nevertheless, they can serve as examples of the approach taken by the chefs at Trace.
The spring risotto ($12/$22) is the standout dish of all my visits, easily the finest risotto I have tasted: tiny English peas, dainty asparagus, spring garlic, delicate young leaves of arugula and basil, and slices of actual fresh artichoke hearts all suspended in a creamy, light risotto. The simple dish is made sublime by the exquisite flavors of the jewel-like spring vegetables. Likewise, the generous portion of grilled broccoli rabe ($5) was a rewardingly flavorful starter. Firm and fresh, it was grilled with a minimum of oil and seasoned with roasted red piquillo pepper strips and tiny baked garlic chips. The grilled onions with Romesco sauce ($5) was another excellent choice: grilled red and yellow onions from Springdale Farm are stewed in a compote of tomatoes, garlic, herbs, hazelnuts, and almonds, and served with grilled baguette slices. Complex and rich, it was delightful on the crusty, charcoal-striped toast.
The roasted gulf snapper ($28) is served atop a crunchy rectangle of lemon arancini (breaded and fried risotto) and surrounded by young, green fava beans and fennel fumé. The snapper itself has a crisp, browned surface and perfectly cooked, white flaky flesh. The Branch Ranch beef tenderloin ($37) was less memorable; served with potato dauphinoise as well as baked onion and celery, it was perfectly good, but fairly standard.
Some of the desserts are deconstructed, and some more traditional. Happily, the deconstructed ones do not resemble extraterrestrial landscapes complete with slime and gravel; instead, while the components are individuated and intensified, a harmonious whole is still identifiable. The Creamsicle ($9) is a good example: a small, crispy, fried cupcake is served in an outsized bowl, topped with a small scoop of intensely flavored orange ice cream and splashed with a tart cucumber-cilantro granita, a free-form "frosting" of strawberry meringue placed on the inner rim of the bowl. Amazingly flavorful and lighthearted. The carrot cake ($9) is served topsy-turvy, with the lime-zest-flavored cream-cheese frosting on the plate and a tower of light, moist carrot cake balanced on top. Cubes of macerated pineapple adorn the plate, along with a scoop of pineapple-tequila ice cream and a paper-thin wheel of dehydrated pineapple to add a festive note.
The bars at Trace are jammed on the weekends, and the new Austin City Limits studio right next door has occasionally strained the kitchen's abilities with unexpected throngs; nevertheless, I'd say Trace is off to a fine start. I wish I could take my grandmother there.