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Austin Restaurant Week at Zed's and Trace: 3-course introductions to a high-design hybrid in North Austin and a rococo hotel downtown

Mike Sutter

The dishes are being cleared from the first half of Austin Restaurant Week, so it seems like a good time to review dinner experiences at Zed's and Trace, two of the 60-plus restaurants offering three-course dinners for $25-$35. Some are also doing lunch or brunch for $10-$15. The second four-day stretch of Restaurant Week runs Sunday-Wednesday . Find the list and menus at www.restaurantweekaustin.com.

Zed's in North Austin and Trace at the W Hotel downtown opened in December, each a study in high design, each hoping to capture some regional flavor. These are my first visits to both places, and although I can't paint the full picture from a pair of appetizers, entrees and desserts, I can at least show you some sketches. You have four more days to fill in the details.

Zed's

501 Canyon Ridge Drive. 583-0060, www.zeds.bz . Restaurant Week pricing: $15 lunch, $25 dinner.

The high-low restaurant hybrid, that toothy beast with features both formal and folksy, has chewed through its central-city cage and moved northward. It eats a diet of beer-can chicken and pulled pork and meatloaf but also goes for prime rib, martinis and lump crab. It answers to the name Zed.

Zed's new habitat reminds me of Olivia, with which it shares the imprint of designer Michael Hsu. That means limestone and wood outside and earth tones inside, punctuated by honeyed and toasted shades of wood flooring and bolted wall panels. In front, a waterfall laces down a rampart of stacked rock, the opening scene of a watery tracking shot that runs through the restaurant and out to the tiered decks in back.

Like Olivia, Zed's looks like it was airlifted into place, the instant architectural diamond in the dusty rough around it. Parked between a JCPenney and an Office Depot, it's all the more remarkable for its urban ski-lodge atmosphere, a warm-weather clubbiness fostered by an indoor-outdoor designer bar and a back lawn that rolls toward a suburban pond stretching under a low bridge with mood-lighted arches.

That kind of setting seems right for a plate of baby-back ribs seasoned with a mirepoix of irony, possibility and Shiner Bock. Instead, they were overcooked, with thick fibers pulling off in dry layers, approaching the consistency of jerky in the thinner spots. The sauce was straightforward sweet, with a sour undercurrent from a uniform coating of finely chopped onion but no trace of the Shiner Bock in its name.

What the ribs lacked in finesse they made up for in size, enough for two people to make a mess and still take some home. The full rack with two sides is usually $24 by itself, so the $25 three-course Restaurant Week price is a bargain to those of us who think the dish could never be worth $24 on its own, not even with crisp and salty skin-on fries and bright, crunchy cole slaw.

We opened on uneven footing, with salty gumbo thick with rice and shredded chicken but just a thin sliver of the boar sausage that drew my interest in the first place. I'm a fan of the backwoods tang of filé and the bitter edge of roux that walks the thin brown line between cooked and burned, but I didn't find much of either in that little cup. There was more spice on toasted pecans in a Waterfall salad, but the nuts were the only standout element in an otherwise pedestrian toss of greens, apples and tomatoes.

I couldn't argue with the finish, neither with a simple dish of berries and pineapple with cream nor with a jalapeño brownie and its crash course in temperatures: a warm, fudgy chocolate base leading into stinging jalapeño slices and sweet-hot pepper syrup, cooled with a bite of Amy's vanilla ice cream.

The people at Zed's were exceptionally nice, even if they couldn't agree on when and if Restaurant Week applied on Sunday (it did). And they missed a few service marks, letting dirty dishes sit on the table for three full songs on the overamplified swamp-rock soundtrack and leaving me without a fork for the main course. My daughter and I shared one, like the Stygian witches of mythology swapping a solitary eyeball.

A bite of mahi-mahi? Hand over the fork. Grill marks checkered the fish, lending character but overcooking the edges. The mahi's center line was fine, and I appreciated the side dish of simple white wine-butter sauce, ready to smooth over the dockish-tasting darker meat. My daughter stole my side of mac and cheese, corkscrews of cellentani pasta baked with cheese by turns toasted, creamy and elastic. But I hung onto a saute of red peppers, green beans, spinach and mushrooms.

It's a funny thing, ordering grilled fish at a place with the now-ubiquitous mission of elevated comfort food. I so badly wanted to buy into that esthetic with a big chicken-fried steak. But I'm glad I went with the mahi, because it showed Zed's has bigger ambitions than just being Frank Lloyd Wright's favorite Applebee's.

Trace

200 Lavaca St. at the W Austin Hotel. 542-3660, www.whotelaustin.com/trace . Restaurant Week pricing: $15 lunch, $32 dinner.

My dinner guest at Trace and I spent part of the afternoon beforehand arguing whether Austin Restaurant Week is a good deal for anybody involved. Once you do the price-point math, factor in the possibility that some menus are designed to be faster and more cost-effective and then gauge the ambivalence of the staff that serves the deal-drunk public, who benefits?

We agreed that some of the combo deals appear to cost more than the regular a la carte menu prices. But for most, the three-course price means you're getting dessert for free. So the customer benefits. But what does the restaurant get? One thing: the chance to show off what it does best to a new potential client pool.

At Trace, one staff member's job is to source local foods for chef Paul Hargrove and build relationships with growers and ranchers. That's the hook for a place that might otherwise be just the in-house food service for the W Hotel. Hargrove told my colleague Renee Studebaker, "I know Texas has thousands of amazing wild edibles out there just waiting to be rediscovered."

So why did Trace's Restaurant Week menu seem so ordinary? Appetizers: garden salad, market soup. Mains: hanger steak with potato puree, salmon with red pepper puree, spring risotto. Desserts: carrot cake, bread pudding. That could be almost anybody's three-course plan.

Maybe what the place needed was a more effective literary forager, because "garden salad" and "market soup" don't begin to describe the end products. The carpet of green salad in a deep china basin writhed with the tendrils, curls and tiny flowers of field greens both familiar and inexplicable. Dandelion greens? Wild arugula? Pea shoots? All of those and more, tossed with golden plum tomatoes and pearls of goat cheese in a vinaigrette that invigorated them all. In a twin bowl, rendered in shocking green, cold pea soup delivered a grassy payoff in velvet spoonfuls, spiked by a fiery horseshoe atoll of equally red chile oil.

Let me explain the disconnect of that wholesome food in this place. Trace and the W Hotel body it occupies look like places where the Marie Antoinette played by Kirsten Dunst and Malcolm McDowell's Caligula would hang out. Claw-footed all-white upholstered chairs line up next to equally blanched lyre-backed chairs across from gray velveteen banquettes in button-plush pleats. The walls are tangerine here, soft as powdered Italian stone there, a frenzied compression of mirror fragments elsewhere. One lounge area is bathed in sacrificial red. A hallway of individual bathrooms with their own doors and fixtures seems scandalous in that 1980s way. In a restaurant world gone minimalist, Trace is maximalist. Mad Max-imalist.

The contrast amplified the counterintuitive notion that this simple soup and salad could look and taste so progressive. It also amplified the fall back to earth in the final two courses. Not because they were bad by any stretch, but because they were ordinary in the way that made me believe I could eat this food at most any two-star place, maybe even in a first-class airline seat. Take the sliced hanger steak on potato puree with haricots verts, for example. The meat was seared a fine medium rare. Nothing was overly salted or overcooked. But nothing suggested an elevated degree of provenance or imagination.

A dish of grilled salmon came closer to the mark, not so much because of the nicely cooked fish but because the other players on the plate announced their celebrity status with sensual style: curled ribbons of bright cucumber, delicate slices of sweet, vegetal tomatillo and the aggressive bitterness of charred red oak lettuce. The rowdiest player, a puree of red pepper, wound up being overly competitive and spent dinner on the sidelines.

Just as the food expressed its identity issues, neither can I tell yet what kind of service tone Trace wants to set. We had to ask specifically for the Restaurant Week menu when we sat down and felt sheepish doing so, but our waiter didn't reward our comparative frugality in this high-ticket environment with passive-aggressive neglect. But during a lull in service, we noticed a coterie of staff leaning against a wall in view of the dining room, talking and socializing and doing that thing waiters do: waiting. At this level, that's an amateur display of nothing better to do and should be done behind one of the doors marked "Talent Only."

Dessert was the most emblematic of Trace's unrealized potential to press its freshly foraged agenda in this three-course format.

One dish came as a deconstructed carrot cake, little tawny bites flanked by a stream of icing, carrot peels, a paper-thin slice of dried pineapple and an egg-shaped scoop of citrus ice cream, the astringent flavor of which clashed with the rest of the group. Another dessert of bread pudding seemed out of place here, coiled densely into its bowl like a Cinnabon cobra, crowned precociously with a scoop of ice cream the size of a melon ball. It was slow-footed and unimaginative, clearly in need of the side dish of chocolate sauce that clung for dear life to its bowl rather than pouring to the rescue.

In all, I can't imagine this is the face that Trace wants to show. Its best face likely has a farmer's tan.

msutter@statesman.com; 912-5902

Two to watch for Restaurant Week

For some, these three-course restaurant events are a thankless grind. For others, maybe it's time to prove something. This time around, my money's on two chefs stepping into new jobs at established places:

The Belmont (305 W. Sixth St., 457-0300, www.thebelmontaustin.com ): Menus aren't something you can change overnight, and chef Nikki Bezak is just now getting to cook some of her own creations at the Belmont after moving here from Stella's Fish Cafe in Minneapolis. Regardless how much of the ARW lineup is her own, look for Bezak to bring an edge to the $25 menu with crab bisque and lump crab, seared scallop with blue cheese risotto or stuffed pepper with pepperjack cream.

Paggi House (200 Lee Barton Drive, 473-3700, www.paggihouse.com ): Ben "Chili" Huselton has replaced Paggi House chef Shane Stark, who's moved over to Kenichi, another restaurant on the ARW roster. For $35 Paggi House will be plating oyster fennel soup, Strube Ranch Wagyu carpaccio, tea-brined duck breast, pork short rib and more.