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Trace is setting a high bar for fine hotel dining

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Exquisite entree: Duck breast from Sonoma
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A restaurant in a hotel already has many strikes against it. I always assume it will be overpriced, with a kitchen distracted by having to prepare three meals a day plus room service.

Trace, the restaurant in the Hotel W, headed by Aqua and Oliveto alum Paul Piscopo, is the exception. Piscopo’s ingredient-driven cooking is some of the best in The City at surprisingly moderate prices. Additionally, its location makes Trace a go-to place for meals around Yerba Buena.

I recently tasted Piscopo’s cooking at a blowout 20th anniversary dinner at Aqua put on by Michael Mina and all the chefs with whom he has worked since 1991. The starry group included Bruce Hill, Melissa Perello, Traci de Jardins, Ron Siegel and Piscopo, among others.

Piscopo’s dish — a bright-flavored tartare of spot prawns in olive consommé scented with lemon and topped with caviar, each ingredient meaningful and the dish stunning in appearance — stood way out.

His cooking at Trace, not as fancy but equally enthralling, shows off his talents in a more casual way. The name of the restaurant refers to provenance, and the simple one-page menu — with small plates listed on one side and large ones on the other — features a central column of dishes categorized by Trace buzz words: farmed, foraged, crafted and shared. Though conceptually fuzzy, that column does provide fertile ordering territory.

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An olive oil-brushed flatbread, heaped with tender broccoli sprouts, caramelized onions, hunks of unctuous pork belly and a snowfall of grated asiago ($14), disappears awfully fast. Everything dances together to create a generous, easily “shared” first bite — a must-order.

“Foraged” wild fennel pollen worked into silken fettuccine ($18) gives it a toasty aroma that reminds me of wild fennel baking in the sun on the side of the road. A juicy ragout of roasted cherry tomatoes, chanterelles — also foraged — and artichokes makes a vibrant, integrated sauce.

“Farmed” duck breast from Sonoma ($24), roasted rare and sliced, tastes like exquisite beef. It comes with a nutty pilaf of barley, quinoa, pine nuts and sauteed spinach — one of my favorite dishes at Trace.

Ricotta-filled agnolotti ($16), a delicate, buttery little plate of heaven that shows off the skilled technique of this kitchen, represents “crafted.”

The other columns of this horizontal menu have plenty to offer, too.

Piscopo’s Asian-inflected tartare of albacore ($13), so pristine, reminded me of that shrimp tartare.

Tender, grilled Monterey squid ($12), licked by the fire, are moistened with tomatoes and peppers and poured over a grilled sourdough bread that sops up all the juices.

Falling-apart braised pork shoulder, the very definition of umami, piled on top of browned gnocchi ($13) creates one of the most savory dishes in town. Order this one as a main course.

Trace’s craft extends to chicken thigh ravioli ($13) in a deep roasted chicken broth, lifted by pickled cherry peppers.

I could go on raving about what I ate. The downside is the hard-edged, ineptly lit W dining room, and the horrible acoustics. Casual service works just fine, but wine is annoyingly expensive.

Yet Piscopo’s cooking is so lush, earthbound and legitimately exciting it triumphs over its relentlessly uncomfortable surroundings, making Trace patrons remember they’re in San Francisco, after all.

Trace

Location: W Hotel, 181 3rd St. (at Howard Street), San Francisco
Contact: (415) 817-7836; www.trace-sf.com
Hours: 6:30 to 10:30 a.m. breakfast and 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. for lunch Monday-Friday; 6 to 10 p.m. Monday-Thursday for dinner; 6 to 11 p.m. Friday-Saturday for dinner; 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday-Sunday brunch; 6 to 10 p.m. Sunday for dinner
Price range: Small plates $9 to $14, large plates $16 to $29 for dinner
Recommended dishes: Grilled flatbread, roast duck breast, braised pork shoulder with gnocchi, farro verde, ricotta agnolotti, grilled squid on sourdough
Credit cards: All
Reservations: Accepted

Patricia Unterman is the author of many editions of the “San Francisco Food Lovers’ Guide.” Contact her at pattiu@concentric.net.

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