TRACE focuses on promoting locally sourced foods through an evolving menu

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Redefining and Refining Restaurant Week

Gulf shrimp and grits is one of the brunch menu items at TRACE restaurant located next to the W Hotel downtown. TRACE will serve brunch for $17 during Austin Restaurant Week, which will run from Sept. 30 to Oct. 3.

Photo Credit: Marisa Vasquez | Daily Texan Staff

Southern comfort food is not usually associated with sleek hotels or sustainable farming, but TRACE brings an environmental and social awareness to its soulful menu. Committed to the use of sustainable and locally grown ingredients, this upscale Austin restaurant provides diners with socially responsible cuisine highlighted in this fall’s Austin Restaurant Week.

“I think people want to see locally farmed and environmentally friendly food. It’s one of our cornerstones: to source locally. It’s one of our mantras that we use in the restaurant,” Ben Hightower, chef de cuisine at TRACE explained. “I think there are a lot of people that are looking for it.”

Creating a cuisine that is representative of the tastes of Austin challenges TRACE to constantly experiment with new flavors, ingredients and combinations. Because the TRACE cooking ideology centers on the land and the climate of Austin, when the seasons change, so do the dishes. From summer melons to fall pumpkins, the menu changes up to twenty times a year.

“That’s where it all starts from — the seasons changing. It keeps you inspired in terms of being able to change so often,” Janina O’Leary, executive pastry chef at TRACE, said. “We will literally change the menu one week and then that item is no longer available. But that’s also the fun part, being able to be a part of something where we can change so often and play with the menu.”

The nature of TRACE keeps the staff constantly growing through their creations, yet they still remain true to their roots and experiences. Both Hightower and O’Leary have worked throughout the nation and world, crafting unique dishes that draw on a variety of culinary styles and techniques, but Hightower stresses simplicity and flavors in his cuisine.

“I’m from New Orleans originally, so I try and insert a lot of those flavors into my cooking. I also think that there are not a lot of restaurants in Austin that are just doing good food,” Hightower said. “I think there’s a lot of people that try to make it flashy — which there is absolutely nothing wrong with — but I just focus on making sure every plate that goes out is prepared properly and seasoned properly and cooked properly, which, in kind of an unassuming way, makes TRACE unique.”

Focusing on the farm-to-table restaurant experience, Hightower and O’Leary use rich flavors to play up the hand-selected ingredients. In a completely organic process, chefs follow the food from its origin to its plating. But Hightower not only provides relatable Southern dishes tailored to Austin; he focuses on the future of cuisine.

“There’s an element of responsibility to it as well. I think in the near future it’s going to be almost mandatory,” Hightower explained. “Fuel prices are going to be so prohibitive that we won’t be able to afford vegetables to be trucked across the country anymore. [Using local food] is an investment in the future.”

Known for being a green and environmentally conscious city, Austin appears to be burgeoning with patrons seeking sustainable foods. The struggle for TRACE and similar eateries is providing affordable food that does not compromise their values.

“That’s the battle. But at the same time it has brought us people who are excited to come in and try unrefined local or organic or good comfort local food,” O’Leary said. “And that’s the pay off. It’s the tricky part in what we do, but it’s also worth it. It comes out when people taste the food.”

Austin Restaurant Week (continuing Sept. 30 through Oct. 3) gives restaurants like TRACE the opportunity to display the affordability and accessibility of unique and local food. With special meals, events, samples and social hours, Austin’s restaurants are spicing up the culinary scene for a good cause. With a “buy a meal, give a meal” model, proceeds from the two-week-long food fest benefit Meals on Wheels and More.

“In terms of our philosophy on brunch, it’s pretty simple. We strive to provide great dishes at an affordable price point while also allowing guests to take full advantage of the scene,” said Sean Bradshaw, director of beverage and food. “Brunch on the TRACE terrace is as beautiful as it is relaxing, and the live jazz and complimentary brunch cocktail really seals the deal.”

At only $17 for brunch, Austin Restaurant Week gives students the opportunity to eat at a swanky eatery that they normally could not afford. Living on a college budget, $15 pancakes will break the bank. But for the next two weeks, students can treat themselves to cheesy shrimp and grits and divine lemon lime tarts with dulce de leche at a reasonable price.

Featuring both divine delicacies, TRACE’s Restaurant Week brunch provides patrons with a selection of savory options they can feel good about eating.

Printed on Thursday, September 27, 2012 as: TRACE brings a unique taste to Austin