REVIEW: Trace at The W Hotel

Happy Monday!  It is sunny in Austin, Texas!

I still can’t get over the fact that it snowed four days ago in our fair city.  Out-of-town readers, did you hear about blizzards covering the South?  And did you laugh when you turned on your television set to see that by “blizzard,” we are referring to two inches of snow?


We don’t know how to drive, dress, or react when it gets below 30 here.  It’s true.

Anyway — moving on.  Today I have a restaurant review for locals.  But before I begin this review, a confession is in order: I find food writing incredibly, painfully difficult.

If food writing were a spelling bee, I’d be the kid stammering and wetting their pants, misspelling “tree,” while the confident children around me nailed “camouflage”and “daguerreotype.”

“T….R….E….I?   Is it I??”  I’d squeak to the judges.

“No,” they would sadly sigh.  One would bury his face in his hands.

TREE is not spelled with an ‘I.’  Thank you and go home.”

Every time I sit down to write a food post, I think, how does Ruth Reichl do it?  Forget Ruth: How do My Baking Addiction and The First Kitchen do it?  How do they manage to take something as quotidian as eating and turn it into something … emotion-fraught?  Funny?  Sexy?  Full of admirable narrative arcs, secret asides, and special hints?  It’s an area where my writer brain simply lacks cunning.  And, I just feel like I have to get that out in the open before I embark on this review.  Before we begin this little journey together.

Ahh.  Comfort zone!  Cocktails.  I can write about cocktails.  This is a safe place to begin.
So, Trace.  The new restaurant inside The also-new W Hotel.  Ross and I went there for dinner a few nights ago for Date Night, and ordered about five or six things.  So gleefully gluttonous, we are!
This is a shot of Trace’s cocktail menu, and specifically, my favorite drink on it.  The Black Peppercorn Martini isn’t terribly sweet, which I like.  It’s winter now, but with the basil, lime and strawberries, remember The Black Peppercorn Martini when summer arrives.  It’s an outdoor-sipping, Brazilian-music-listening kinda drink.

One thing you must know about Trace and its restaurant ethos: All the way down to their mustards, the kitchen sources local and regional ingredients.  (It’s nice that that’s becoming almost standard practice at Austin restaurants, non?)  Also, Trace definitely got the memo about Austinites being a socially-conscious, ready-with-a-Yelp-review set, and acted accordingly.  They have bent over backwards to make their menu an ecologically sound one, and should you dine there, the wait staff is eager to educate you about it. 

Above is the first thing Ross ordered, the grass-fed Beef Tartare.  It’s topped with egg and — I believe — kale and radicchio.  Some nice bitter greens to balance out all those rich animal textures.

I have a newly-revived love affair with beets.  Especially if they are roasted beets … sigh of pleasure.  This is the Roasted Beet Salad, served with chevre, candied walnuts and arugula.  The only element I craved here was something tangy.  Beets have a natural sugar, and with the candied walnuts, it’s quite a sweet (literally) little salad.  So I wanted a squeeze of something astringent.  I just don’t know what.

MORE BEETS, yay!  This was the main dish I ordered for dinner: Flash-Grilled Scallops, with confit beets, blood orange, and marcona almonds.  Some very clever textures going on here:  Are you noticing how the almonds are crumbled up, on top of the scallop?  This ensures each of your long, silky bites of scallop aren’t too silky: There’s a detectable crunch happening in your mouth.  It’s a smart contrast.

Ross ordered the Charcuterie Board for dinner, only after a soul-searching ten minutes of whether or not he should order the Pork Belly — because he ALWAYS orders the Pork Belly.  Folks, I love it too, but every restaurant in town serves it.  Close your eyes on 2nd St. and point, start walking, and eventually, you will run into pork belly.  
I said to Ross, “dare to dream.  Order the Charcuterie Board.”
On the menu, the Charcuterie Board describes itself as a jaunty selection of “heads, feet, tails and middles.” We asked our server about these, not because we were suspicious, but because we were genuinely curious.  When you source locally, your “heads, feet, tails and middles” change frequently according to availability, so all I can say is that our “heads, feet, tails and middles” were delicious — salty and delicious.  Salamis, prosciutto; nothing too crazy (i.e. adrenal gland, inner ear, etc.)  
But when you eat there, should you order the Charcuterie Board, ask.  It’s rather the horse of a different color of the menu.  An adventure every time.

You’ll have to forgive me for forgetting what we had for dessert.  But at least I had the good sense to take a picture!  Pistachio gelato?  With fresh seasonal citrus fruits?  That appears to be what we’re looking at here.  Served on a little, spongy cake … oh!  I remember.  That yummy cake had a Tres Leches quality to it.  It was the first to go after I snapped this picture. 
In the end, Trace pleasantly surprised me with its rustic menu, affixed to wooden slabs and so thoughtfully crafted with the region in mind. It made me wonder whether the cosmopolitan atmosphere (see one photo here) would eventually give way to slightly more warmth: Trees growing inside, white leather seats traded out for velvety green Grandma chairs.  But then, maybe what we’re seeing here in Austin is that “eating ethically” isn’t limited to the cozy home-feeling restaurant set: It’s now just as much a part of your experience when you’re not home at all, but in a fancy hotel, one very mindfully pulling out all the stops for you.