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The music — rather, the four-on-the-floor beat — crescendoes as the entrance to Trace nears, courtesy of speakers hidden above the door. The moment I pull it open, the beat explodes in volume, thudding into my solar plexus, as if I've walked out of an air-conditioned mall into a wall of 110-degree heat. I walk down the aisle toward the host's lectern, to my left a flotilla of white tables glowing under the purplish light, and when I reach the desk, the view opens up onto a lounge scene reminiscent of SF's dot-com boom.
Hundreds of thousands of dollars have just transformed the restaurant and bar of the W Hotel into an even clubbier space than before. The design is meant to evoke the San Francisco skyline, drawn in yard-square pixels. Slatted wood squares tile the walls, bluish-purple light glowing through the slats, and the ground is covered in a grid of variegated gray carpet squares and cubical leather banquettes. The colors pale in the upper stories, and on the fog-gray mezzanine above, a DJ mans the laptop that produces the beats rollicking through my body. Not-quite-middle-aged men and women, many still wearing their suit jackets, sprawl across the banquettes, looking as if they're waiting for the E to kick in so they can hug up on one another. On the restaurant side of the host's lectern, a long, high communal table stretches the length of the room. Cafeteria seating for The Real Housewives of New Jersey cast? Perhaps. The dream of the '90s is alive in Trace.
Back in those days, when Trace was first born as XYZ, the W's restaurant was a dot-commer destination serving multicultural, architectural food. XYZ slowly faded out of the public eye until its rebranding this summer. Not only was the scenery changed, Trace's mission was, too. The food is now ethically charged-up, rustic, and farmer-focused.
181 Third St.
San Francisco, CA 94103
Region: South of Market
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What has remained the same has been the chef, Paul Piscopo, who has a résumé that would cause any foodista to notice (Aqua, Charles Nob Hill, Masa's). Piscopo's new menu is short and seasonal, with a few dishes highlighted under 2011-buzzword subtitles: "foraged," "crafted," "shared." The dishes are simply conceived and padded with sexy ingredients: steaks from Piedmontese cattle, fennel pollen sprinkled over pasta, braised farro verde (green spelt).
Order the pork shoulder ($13) — one of Trace's best dishes — and it's been braised into velvet, tossed with a few "crafted" gnocchi, black trumpet mushrooms, and some of the braising liquid, which has been reduced down to its essence. Order the farro ($18), and it's a Moosewood Cookbook disaster, a bland lump of grains and vegetables with a few tablespoons of a paprika-scented sauce spooned onto the top. Rustic at its best, rustic at its worse. The beat keeps thumping on.
Go to Trace during the day, and it's quite another scene: The bluish glow of the walls is subdued by sunlight, reflected off a thousand white surfaces you might never notice at night. Beaded curtains separate the restaurant from the (now music-free) scene at the lounge. The waiters, in their gingham shirts, are the most casually dressed people in the room. Lanyards swing from around the necks of most diners.
And the food, for an expense-account lunch, is solid: Tufts of little gem lettuces are tossed with walnuts, julienned radishes, and shaved apples ($9) in a punchy but not abusive vinaigrette. A rabbit club sandwich ($14) cushions a half-inch-thick patty of shredded, braised rabbit, bound with whole-grain mustard, with bacon, lettuce, and tomato. A lovely almond-milk panna cotta ($8), creamy rather than jiggly, is crowned with finely brunoise spiced apples and shards of transparent almond brittle.
Dinner, though, leads to more dramatic expectations, which the kitchen rarely fulfills. An appetizer of halibut tartare ($14) zeros in on the shimmering, almost translucent flavor of the raw fish, but forgets to offer any other discernible contrast, and so an unfinished plate languishes on the table until entrees arrive. The elusive flavor of fennel pollen haunts house-made fettuccine ($18) tossed with charred cherry tomatoes, mushrooms, and artichokes, but the noodles are thick-jointed and stolid, and the garlicky sauce that coats the dish is gawkily composed. Scallops — creamy-centered, nicely seared — are served on a cloud of celery-root purée and ringed with artichokes and chanterelles that have been roasted so long the delicate vegetables have seized up and charred.
Trace's most commanding dish is the Piedmontese-beef ribeye ($40), as bloody as you hope it will be, with the deep-toned earthiness of grass-fed beef and a thin coat of a sparkling, multi-herb salsa verde spread over the top of the beef. But even though it's the most expensive dish in the restaurant, it's served bare on a platter, with a side plate containing a mass of bintje potatoes, lobster mushrooms, and greens — a heap of green-gold glop that looks like it came out of the steam table at an Indian buffet.
Perhaps a few more $8 beers or sugary cocktails would resolve the aesthetic disconnect between the artifice-glorying spectacle of the room and the peasant food the kitchen is humping out, but for me it's too great. After two hours of eating in a Ridley Scott nightclub, it's a relief to walk out the door, anticipating the abstract whoosh of rushing cars, maybe even the sound of my own breath. But I've forgotten the speakers above the door, and the beat follows me out on to the street, nipping at my heels until I finally cross the street.