Thursday, April 12, 2012

Restaurant Review: Trace at the W Hotel

I know it's been beyond annoying for you as the readers, but I have to say, I couldn't be more pleased that I waited until I was good and ready to write this review properly. In all honesty, I wasn't expecting too much from the first 2 restaurant I visited during Austin Restaurant Week, so I thought it might be nice to wait until I had tried each of the second two to write their reviews. Little did I know, the experiences would be so entirely different, one exceeding all of my wildest expectations, and the other, well you'll have to wait and hear about that monumental disappointment until the next posting. 

As it turns out, my experience at Trace at the W Hotel would be the best I'd have all week, and I'd venture to say it just might be the best culinary experience I've had, well, ever. My expectations were extremely high, as my friend and former coworker now works as a chef at Trace, and I sought to crush his haughty arrogance (as any friend would) with my overcritical tongue. Although I am quite annoyed with my inability to make but one criticism of my experience, I can't really say I lost. After all, Trace did provide me with the best meal of my adult life. And really, who could argue with that? 

I need to learn to set a table like this. 

From the moment we walked into the Hotel, Luke and I were shot into an immediate state of discomfort, although not as unpleasant as it might sound. He and I just simply aren't accustomed to the life of the rich, so adjusting to something so lavishly beautiful was a bit of a challenge, a challenge to be thoroughly enjoyed with a fancy (and potent) cocktail in hand. 

We'd agreed to order different things for each course of our glorious meal so that we could each relish in the unique and delectable flavors of more of the plates offered here. My chef friend David daringly recommended that I try the gumbo for my starter, knowing full well that I am a Cajun girl, born and bred. The disappointment I expected, however was not to come of this wonderful bowl of shrimp and andouille gumbo. 

It's rather true. Happiness IS a warm gumbo. 

I was immediately pleased to recognize the familiar garlic bread served with all gumbo in the homeland. Things are looking, and smelling, pretty good so far. So I dig in. Luke catches me speechless. Oh my goodness, a restaurant outside of Louisiana can actually make a decent gumbo! The roux was perfectly browned, and the spice was unreserved. Each bite was bursting with the flavors I'd known and loved so long, and yet missed so dearly since Katrina wreaked havoc on my home. The texture was impeccably balanced, and the shrimp, perfectly cooked, something I would not be able to say for any of my other Restaurant Week experiences. The only qualm I'd have was with the andouille, and even that was acceptable. But hey, I'm a coon ass, and this is the only area in which I can claim to possess any sort of expertise. That rich, delicious, slow-smoked wonder was missing from the my favorite sausage, and it seems as though the butcher was shy with the fat, a notion I am not at all familiar with. Fortunately though, the perfectly cooked coating of flour and lard, seasoned with a carefully-balanced slew of Cajun spices, would save the slightly bogeyed andouille.

Somewhere between my rapid shoveling of gumbo from bowl to mouth, I found the time to taste Luke's roasted beet salad, another dish with which I would be unexpectedly pleased. 

You'll have to forgive my poorly lit camera-phone photos. 

In the past, I haven't always been the biggest fan of these overly sweet and starchy roots, but the distinguishable flavors that arose in this dish as a result of the slow roasting of the beets is nothing short of fantastic. The pecan vinaigrette and the pickling of the beets provided a tang that helped cut through some of the sweetness, and the dressing combined with the fried pecans sprinkled over top harmonized to accent the earthiness of the ingredients. I doubt if I will ever be so content to eat beets again in this lifetime. 

Following the enormous success of these appetizers, our anticipation of the entrées boiled ferociously, spilling over as the gorgeous plates were set before us. Allow me to begin by saying that I have absolutely never enjoyed a piece of seafood cooked as beautifully as the scallops I would proceed to cut through with but the lightest pressure from my silver fork. I relished in every facet of this experience, thanking the gods that not one of my senses was impaired at this moment. 

My plate was beautifully presented.

The familiar smells of fresh seafood filled the air, the scallops cut like butter with the smallest of efforts, and the flavors of each of the ultra-fresh ingredients shone through brightly with each bite. The scallops were seared to perfection, presenting with that light crunch chefs train over for years. They rested gracefully atop a fluffy cauliflower purée, and baby cauliflower was dispersed over top. A grapefruit and caper pan jus lightly punctuated the dish, aiding in its flow as one delicious story. Never could I have dreamt of this unique combination of flavors, and yet I was somehow deemed fortunate enough to devour it. 

Luke's dish proved to be wildly different from the one that rested delicately on my intricate place mat, but for me it would be yet another gastronomic epiphany. In sampling his main dish, I was about to consume my first gnocchi and the freshest pesto I had ever enjoyed. The crunchy prosciutto provided a wonderful texture differential to the dish as I melted little balls of gnocchi in my mouth, reveling in the brightly colored, expertly prepared lamb quarters basil pesto. The olive oil was noticeably top-notch, and the basil, fresh and roughly chopped, rather than processed to a cheapened paste. 

If only this silly photo could do it all justice. 

Luckily, each of the plates was perfectly portioned, and we would still have room for dessert as a result. Although I am significantly less versed in the world of sweets, I am certainly able to appreciate them. The lemon tart I ordered was a flawless close to my meal, as it was full of bright, clean flavors and served with a champagne sorbet. The lemon portion of this dish was tart, and I was content with the blissfully understated sweetness. It was accented with tiny balls of strawberry meringue that lent themselves gorgeously to cutting through the acidity of the tart. The champagne sorbet cooled my palette and closed my meal with an obscenely appropriate kiss of lusciousness.

This simple dish may have transformed me into a dessert person.

The pastry chef could not have ended my meal on a higher note, and I don't know if I could have left this exceptional restaurant in a better mood. I can safely say that we have found our special occasion foodie destination for many Austin meals to come. 

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