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A restaurant in a hotel already has many strikes against it. I always assume that 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 worked since 1991, a starry group that included Bruce Hill, Melissa Perello, Traci de Jardins, Ron Siegel and Piscopo, among others. Piscopo’s dish stood way out, a bright flavored tartare of spot prawns in olive consomme scented with lemon and topped with caviar, each ingredient meaningful and the dish stunning in appearance. 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.

An olive oil brushed flat bread, 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 and 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.  And 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, earth bound and legitimately exciting, it triumphs over its relentlessly uncomfortable surroundings, making Trace patrons remember they’re in San Francisco, after all.

Trace, 181 3rd Street (at Howard) in the W Hotel, San Francisco
Contact: 415 817-7836; www.trace-sf.com
Hours:  Monday through Thursday breakfast 6:30 to 10:30 a.m., lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., dinner 6 to 10 p.m. Friday breakfast 6:30 to 10:30 a.m., Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., dinner 6 to 11 p.m.  Saturday brunch 7 a.m. to 2 p.m., dinner 6 to 11 p.m. Sunday brunch 7 a.m. to 2 p.m., dinner 6 to 10 p.m.
Price range:  dinner small plates $9 to $14; large plates $16 to $29
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

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