The door at the entrance to Trace has a geometric window that looks like a Tetris puzzle piece. It serves as a nice architectural metaphor for the restaurant at the W Hotel.
Where does Trace fit into Austin’s restaurant scene?
Is it a place to sate tourists and hotel guests looking for the same swank cosmopolitan appeal found in bigger cities?
Is it a destination restaurant for local residents looking for some sophistication in a town that prides itself on a casual vibe?
Is it a place of interest for food lovers who can get underneath the sleek veneer in search of some soulful cooking?
Trace is also a bit polarizing. Some will always see the W as "too Dallas" (or Los Angeles or whichever is the hated city du jour), a place that tries too hard to be something Austin intrinsically is not. We’ll leave that cultural debate to the water cooler and online commenters. Trace deserves to be judged on the merits of its food and service.
Yes, the cracked silver mirrors, lacquered black tables, metallic "Game of Thrones" placemats, plush silver drapes and banquettes, rounded cream chairs and sleek concrete-and-wood design feel a bit showy and extravagant – like a house party in West Austin that you’ve prepped yourself not to enjoy, hosted by a woman who simply adores Gaultier.
But the greetings are warm, the staff friendly and those chairs oh so comfortable. And they have grits. Maybe I’m wrong about this place, after all, you tell the judgmental devil on your right shoulder.
Those grits come with supple roasted shrimp at a popular brunch that stretches across Saturday and Sunday. You’ll also find a serving with the Farmer’s Breakfast (an eye-opening $14) that features two eggs and smoked brown sugar bacon that glistens with maple syrup viscosity, the thick-cut pieces taking on the playful look and feel of a doggy chew-toy.
Hushpuppies ($15) the size of popovers overflow from a cone of metallic spires that would look at home at a Madonna concert (or on Madonna). Soft honeycombed breading inside nestles pinches of moist Blue Crab that tease more than satisfy. The same cones at lunch support a bounty of crunchy golden French fries that come with one of the best cheeseburgers in town – a fat, coarse-grind patty draped with tangy cheddar cheese, topped with crispy bacon (different than the sweet variety from brunch) and served on a rich, buttery brioche bun. The $16 price tag rings of room service, but the included fries are much better than a mint on the pillow.
Chef Ben Hightower, who arrived in Austin in 2010 and worked as executive sous chef at Uchiko, has roots in Louisiana, and his appreciation for seafood shows on a dinner menu that includes three fish dishes. A firm, meaty cobia special ($26), pierced by firm bits of pickled radish, held up to the grill, which left impressive ebony char marks. The smokiness was balanced by the nutty sweetness of a sunchoke cream through which I dragged the crisp prosciutto chips.
The grilled redfish ($26) had Louisiana flare, but the dish looked like an I-10 pile-up, an unappealing heap of crawfish and okra stew shrouding a fishy cut that tasted off. The accompanying hard rice risotto got taken off the stove too soon, giving it firm texture that was a little more welcome in the funky bayou flavors of the dirty rice-stuffed Texas quail appetizer ($15), punctuated with the bright blast of bitter celery salad, like the Meters performing with ZZ Top. The tender bird had a crackling caramelized skin with a thin membrane of fat infusing its gamy flavors.
Perfectly tender braised lamb shoulder ($27) was the centerpiece of one of the best dishes I’ve had in weeks. The spiced peanut curry delivered a warm earthiness electrified and cooled by mint and cilantro. The protein comes atop a generous bowl of couscous. Take your fork, stir it about to blend all the flavors and be transported.
My favorite small plate at Trace harkens to Hightower’s time at Uchi – beautiful slabs of orchid-colored sea bass crudo ($14) enlivened with a sweet-tart white ponzu sauce and anchored by earthy butternut squash. The small plates portion of the menu offered the only options for my vegetarian guest one night. A bluebonnet garden salad ($10), fluffy greens studded with impressive roasted figs and the pop of pine nuts, and a strozzapreti pasta ($14). The al dente pasta came in a rich cream sauce infused by pungent Caveman blue cheese and dotted with candied toasted pecans. The pasta usually comes with bacon lardons, but the dish hit the indulgent mark without the piggy assist.
Speaking of pigs … let us count the wonderful ways: prosciutto, bacon-wrapped pork terrine, German-style sausage, a chunky country pate that could make for the perfect sandwich with some Dai Due mustard, and leathery ribbons of amazing cured pork shoulder from Iowa’s La Quercia. All of these can be ordered individually ($6-$7), or you can build a charcuterie board ($30) with six of the meats and cheese offerings that include a sublime Barely Buzzed, a firm cow’s milk cheddar rubbed with coffee. The cheese recently took home a bronze medal at the World Cheese Awards in London.
We enjoyed the charcuterie plate (and fish) with the tingling fruit of a brut rose from Simonnet Febvre that seemed a bit steep at $56. The wine list at Trace is not expansive, but does offer bottles at all price points, from a $25 Italian red to the $3,000 bottle of Dom Perignon.
A smooth, berry-filled glass of Cabernet Sauvignon from Conn Creek ($13) paired well with a massive ribeye ($52). Crusted with a chorus of rosemary and cracked black pepper, with a bone protruding from its side, the two-person steak looked like a lollipop football. The flavors were nice but the inside of the steak, ordered medium-rare, was a shade of grey that wandered into medium-well territory. We waved off the offer of a replacement from the apologetic server out of consideration of food costs and the wait time for the first, ill-fated attempt.
The service at Trace is exceedingly polite (you don’t wanna get on the wrong side of wealthy hotel guests) and comes in waves of teamwork – runners, bussers, servers and floor managers all touching tables throughout the meal without obnoxious intrusion. But that ubiquity hit a snag one night as our waiter disappeared for a long period of time. After a while another server stepped in to lead the dinner to its conclusion. Apparently our original server had taken ill, a small detail (delivered with good intention) the meal could have used without.
The awkwardness passed with the arrival of Meyer lemon budino, the star of a playful dessert menu that’s intriguing without challenging the traveling businessman. A sphere of champagne sorbet, raft of toasted marshmallow and meringue kisses appeared to float on the island of bright yellow custard, the dish resembling something Dr. Seuss might have created (though credit goes to executive pastry chef Janina O’Leary).
As one dinner ended, we lingered with cocktails on the expansive patio that offers a front-row view of the 2nd Street District crowd. We tried in vain to decipher who was a tourist and who was a local, just like we tried to place Trace in its own little box before the meal.
But sometimes it’s just not that simple. Is Trace a place where you can overhear a husband and wife (favorably) compare the scene to South Beach while a woman at another table name-drops Mick Jagger and talks of trips to private Caribbean islands? Yes. Is it a place where your dining companion can be hit on by a drunk divorcee in town for the weekend? If he’s cute enough, the answer is yes. It is also a place where you can find well-executed, thoughtful dishes that offer comfort even in a place where you may not expect it. It’s a place to escape but also one that can feel like home if you let it.
Trace may never shake some of the sneers from those who decry the threatening homogenization of Austin. But people need not fear the sleek goliath on the corner of Lavaca and Second streets. Trace can be what you want it to be once you come to terms with what it appears to be.