BLACK, GOLD AND MIRRORED. THE LUXE INTERIOR OF POTENTE FORESHADOWS AN EVENING OF PLEASURE. THE IMPRESSIVE RESTAURANT, THE BRAINCHILD OF ASTROS OWNER JIM CRANE, IS LOCATED ACROSS THE STREET FROM THE HOME FIELD OF THE WORLD SERIES CHAMPS AND RIGHT NEXT DOOR TO CRANE’S MORE CASUAL EATERY, OSSO AND KRISTALLA.
At Potente, Crane put together another winning team. General manager and bon vivant Bill Floyd makes sure the front of the house fills every whim and desire. The service proves all-encompassing, meeting every dining need without intrusion. Tables are graciously spaced to keep conversations private; enormous black leather banquettes delightfully dwarf the lucky occupants. And the menus light up!
The food? Polipetti Arrostiti: fork tender, oak wood-roasted octopus tinged with a char, sparked with Calabrian chili on a small nest of housemade, squid ink pasta – magnificent even for the faint of heart. Tonno and Foie Gras: the cubes of pristine raw tuna accented with a grating of frozen, yet creamy foie gras and a delicate slice of briny caper berry – fresh, soothing and salty. With Executive Chef DANNY TRACE leading the kitchen, the fact that the plates are as delicious as they are beautiful should come as no surprise. Trace has the heart and soul of an artist, a classic culinary background, nerves of steel and a passion for ingredients that dates back to his Louisiana childhood.
“The other day I saw a tray of tortelloni in the kitchen. The perfect hand-formed shapes, the scattered semolina – it looked too beautiful to cook. Such beauty, such art – this is why I am here – the passion of it all,” says Trace. “I have those moments in the kitchen when I see such beauty – I get so freaked out, so excited.”
A graduate of Johnson and Wales, Trace did an old school externship at Commander’s Palace in New Orleans. Upon completion, he sought employment there from then-Exec Chef Jamie Shannon. He still recalls Shannon’s admonitions. “I will never forget that moment. He said to me, ‘This is not an easy job. You will work all weekends, every holiday. All your friends will make more money than you. Family life is tough. If you are okay with all that I will sign you up. ’”
The next day Trace began at the bottom of the kitchen hierarchy, working every stage of the brigade from chef garde manger to sous chef de cuisine – for the lunch shift and then repeating the entire process for the evening shift. He still clings to those classic techniques. Trace calls it the “see it, touch it, feel it method.”
“Nothing wrong with sous-vide but it’s not for me.” This philosophy is evident in the succulent Brasato di Costine, the forever braised boneless short ribs – deliriously tender, aggressively and delightfully seasoned, sitting, oh, so pretty on the tiniest slices of fingerling potatoes and a saut. of robust Swiss chard.
He procures for Potente from local growers who truck in high-quality seasonal produce. Trace laughs, “I have a farmers market on my loading dock!”
Years earlier, his Cajun grandfather instilled in him a love of fresh food. “He lived in Kenner. He was a coon ass – the real deal – real country. Took me hunting for ducks, geese, doves, gators. He had a garden, too. We would hunt and harvest okra and then we would cook it. My mom showed me how to handle a wild rabbit – soak it in vinegar before cooking. Fried fish. We would catch frogs and cook them up,” recalls Trace.
When he wasn’t eating local homegrown foods, he ate Italian. “My grandmother was Italian from New Jersey. When we ate out, we ate Italian.”
Hints of these early years meshed with Trace’s training and regional ingredients peek thru on the Quaglia – hill country quail with its wondrous fig and duck confit stuffing, a brush stroke of marsala espresso lacquer, a fried quail egg and a slice of prosciutto anchoring the bird to the plate. “This is my food – French, Creole, Texas, Italian, all on this one dish. It is definitely a reflection of my training, my work experience and my childhood,” says Trace.
Trace is continually tweaking menu items, in search of something different. Premise-made sourdough bread is accompanied with a white bean, roasted artichoke hummus with toasted garlic piquant with a reduced balsamic vinegar glaze. A savory squid ink macaron with a crème fraiche and chive filling as an amuse-bouche sets the tone for an evening of delicious, elegant repast. “I want to do something that no one else is doing,” he says.
I would say he has deliciously achieved his goal.