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Originally published Friday, May 25, 2012 at 5:32 AM

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Restaurant review

Trace: Sleek setting and memorable dishes, but slack service

You can eat well at Trace in the W Hotel, but slack service detracts from the dining experience.

Special to The Seattle Times

Sample menu

Lacinato kale soup $7
Beet salad $9
Braised beef and saffron pappardelle $20
Halibut in leek nage $26
Moroccan-spiced lamb chops $32

Trace

2 stars

Eclectic

1112 Fourth Ave. (in the W Hotel), 206-264-6060

www.traceseattle.com

Reservations: Accepted

Hours: Breakfast 6:30-10:30 a.m. Monday-Friday; lunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Friday; brunch 7 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday-Sunday; dinner 5-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday and 5-10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday; happy hour 4-7 p.m. Monday-Friday and 10 p.m.-midnight Monday-Thursday.

Prices: $$$$ (dinner appetizers $7-$17; sushi rolls $9-$19, entrees $18-$32; lunch entrees $12-$22)

Drinks: Creative cocktails; pricey wine list.

Parking: Valet $10 plus tax with validation

Sound: Loud when full

Who should go: Best for a casual lunch or dinner, a pleasant stop for cocktails or a bite before or after an event.

Credit cards: All major

Access: No obstacles

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Is this the twin-towered, former Westin Hotel? No! The Westin Hotel still exists. ... MORE
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Seattle's W Hotel has a history of employing talented chefs. Two who led the kitchen at Earth & Ocean — John Sundstrom and Maria Hines — later won James Beard Awards. Steven Ariel, the current chef de cuisine at Trace, Earth & Ocean's successor, sends out some great food, but the front of the house fails to deliver.

It's hard to tell where the hotel lobby ends and the restaurant begins: Food and drink are served in the whole shimmery, fringed expanse. At lunchtime it resembles a nightclub paused between revelries. Bypassing the unattended host stand, we wandered through the empty bar and waited at the edge of a sparsely filled dining room where silver-domed pendant lights illuminate a 10-seat sushi bar and a grid of sleek white and black tables casually set with Chilewich place mats.

A suited hotel staffer wearing a discreet earpiece flitted about. Waiters in white shirts and skinny jeans came and went. Eventually the sushi chef approached us and with a broad sweep of his arm said, "Sit anywhere you like."

Call me cranky, but this is not the welcome one expects in a swanky hotel restaurant. Even on a Saturday night, service was listless; the dining room felt rudderless. The waiter struggled to describe the menu. Side plates, chopsticks and soy sauce, brought for a pleasant but unremarkable sushi-roll starter, remained on the table throughout the meal, despite several passes by oblivious staff. The check came halfway through dessert, as if this were Denny's on Sunday morning.

Too often, style interferes. Paper menus are printed in a faint, broken typeface, as if "traced." Rubber-banded to heavy acrylic boards, they are both unwieldy and hard to read. The lengthy cocktail list is in a booklet with the wine list, admittedly not a practice unique to Trace, but how about handing a table more than one to share?

The food distracts from these annoyances, as do imaginative cocktails like a Sicilian margarita blushing with grapefruit juice and blood orange liqueur. You'd be wise to consider one of those, given the uninspired selection and double-digit prices of wines by the glass. (And good luck finding a bottle under $50).

At lunch, sandwiches join a shortened roster of small and large plates from the dinner menu. The burger on Macrina Bakery brioche with shoestring fries is a winner (though cooked a little rarer than requested). But the chicken in a banh mi-like baguette sandwich was aggressively smoked, and saffron pappardelle with braised short rib and mushrooms was salty, with hard bits of celery root and too much rosemary marring the rich sauce.

Many other dishes soared. Preserved kumquats added a tantalizing tartness to perfectly pan-roasted halibut fillet on a raft of fingerling potatoes in leek nage, an elixir that hinted of anise and trailed a little bit of heat in its wake.

Lamb chops, the priciest dinner entree, were stunning, too. A roasted, two-rib chop, crusted with Moroccan-spiced breading, is split to reveal a medium-rare middle and surrounded by sautéed pea shoots, tender green chick peas and a chickpea purée that echoes the countless spices in the breading.

Ariel weaves gritty hazelnut butter, micro greens and Valencia orange segments into a beet salad, playing sweet against sour, and pulling it together with vivid beet vinaigrette. He works hoisin and balsamic into a pork-belly salad. The bite-sized nuggets dusted with five-spice seasoning nest like meaty croutons among chicory greens and cilantro. Slices of early nectarines pickled in sherry vinegar and sugar lend their own piquant punch.

A ruffle of fried kale and a lemon-thyme semolina cracker grace Lacinato kale soup that tasted like a molten field of greens, its mild bitterness balanced by lemon crème fraîche and the salty crunch of pancetta.

The bread bowl holds more delicate crackers, plus lavash and focaccia, baked by the same team that turns out dainty Bing cherry turnovers for dessert, part of an edible landscape that includes mint meringue and pistachio gelato, every dot, swirl and squiggle meticulously placed.

If only management were as painstaking in its attention to detail.

Providence Cicero: providencecicero@aol.com

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