If you’re a frequent visitor of Madison, WI — or just a serious eater who happens to breeze through town every few years — you already know L’Etoile. For decades, it has been the biggest culinary game in town, the restaurant to which Beard wins accrue, the premier place to drop $200 to celebrate your anniversary or new degree. 2005 proved to be a seminal year for the restaurant; not only did founding chef Odessa Piper depart, but for the first time in my 16-year residency, a legitimate competitor opened next door: The Old Fashioned. As a tavern, it competes for a different demographic, but like L’Etoile, it draws big downtown crowds by making local ingredients irresistible.
And so, in July, when L’Etoile moved from the north-northeast corner of Capitol Square to the east-northeast corner, its new diptych location included a space for executive chef Tory Miller to launch the gastropub Graze. (Any irritation stirred up by that still-overwrought term will either be tempered or augmented by the fact that less than 100 feet from Graze is a new “gastro-cantina.”) Graze’s concept is in its name: By offering plates for as little as $1, diners willing to go family-style are able to build their own smörgåsbord. My party of two ordered 13 dishes over two trips and left each time feeling only pleasantly stuffed.
The small plates concept is indeed gangbusters, making dinner feel like a feast. From the “snacks menu,” the soft pretzel ($4) comes with three mustards plus a goat cheese / butter spread. The pretzel was impeccably realized; cracker-crisp on the outside and chewy on the inside, it was an excellent vehicle for its sea salt and garnishes (especially the goat cheese and horseradish mustard). Another snack, pork buns ($6 for 2), was simple but satisfying; the bread was fluffy and delightful, and the combination of spicy pork and a tangy pickled garnish was a tasty harbinger of the entree to come. A classic deviled egg ($3 for three halves) communicates the wholesomeness of its organic origins, but squares its flavors when smeared with the accompanying paprika aioli.
The rainbow trout ($16) was a perfect entree for an October night, with good grill flavor and excellent texture, served on a bed of harvest vegetables. But it was surpassed by the short rib ($22), a generous portion of fatty, smoky, umami goodness with a consistency my jealous companion dubbed “baby food for grown-ups.” What really sets the rib apart is its date relish, adding sweetness, tartness, and a little crunch to the dish. Like a job candidate who answers “perfectionism” to the question, “What’s your greatest flaw?” this dish’s only shortcoming is that it might be too much of a good thing.
Likewise, Graze’s fries ($5, or as a garnish) risk excess — they’re delicious, savory on their own with the right ratio of interior / exterior firmness, but precisely the opposite of skimpy on the salt. So they beg to be balanced with the aioli, which seems like a good idea until you’re about halfway through the serving and the richness catches up with you.
The roasted bone marrow with oxtail marmalade ($11 for two halves) was a larger starter than the snacks, dramatically served on the half-bone. The marrow itself has the mouthfeel of sheer fat and is essentially pure meat flavor; it needs all three of its garnishes (bread on which to spread it, smoky chopped oxtail, and pickled onion) to become a dish, and even then at least half its merit comes from its novelty.
The pub burger ($10) puts the nine most common hamburger toppings, including bacon and cheddar, onto one patty set between two halves of a homemade English muffin. Prepared to order, it’s a great burger at a reasonable price given the exceptional fries, but it’s a mess at this linen-napkin joint. The yummy-but-barely-sufficient muffin bottom got soggy (though perhaps from drippings onto the platter rather than juices penetrating the condiment barrier), and mustard abounded on this diner’s hands.
The grilled cheese sandwich with Hook’s cheddar ($10) got a sharp flavor boost from caramelized onions, mustard, and tomato, but the textures were a bit of a mess. The bread was toasted to the point of being crunchy and perhaps too thick, while the vegetables were so broken down as to almost be a sauce.
Graze has some local notoriety for baked-to-order cookies and milk for dessert ($4), but instead at lunch we availed ourselves of already prepared baked cookies (less than $3 for two). The chocolate sandie with butterscotch and sea salt was hearty and quite flavorful, and the creme-filled peanut butter sandwich cookie sated the sweet tooth and salty tooth equally.
The Insufficiently Peached
Graze is situated in First Wisconsin Plaza, Madison’s glass-for-glass’-sake edifice from the architect of the Sears Tower. That transparent, rectilinear shell is a tough thing to soften into something as homey as a public house should be, but Graze tries — tables orbit the bar and elevated common table in the center of the space, a patio-cum-sidewalk cafe spills into the Capitol Square, and the east wall functions as a floor-to-ceiling “catch of the day” chalkboard. Though it mostly succeeds, Graze, unlike most other pubs in Madison, doesn’t feel like someplace you’d go if all your party wanted were drinks.
And from our limited excursion into their cocktail menu, it didn’t strike us as a tipplers’ mecca. Wines seem well-managed — when I asked for something to pair with the short rib, I was recommended an excellent 2005 La Grange de Piaugier grenache / syrah ($7) — but our dinner cocktails both missed the mark. The Rhum Fire ($6), a Dark ‘n Stormy with anise-infused rum, quashed the ginger beer’s piquancy, merely providing a mellow medium for the excessively prominent anise note; even a hearty squeeze of the lime garnish couldn’t penetrate the assertive anise.
The seasonal punch ($6) on our first visit, a peach-infused vodka, was delicate to a fault, communicating “watered down” more strongly than “tailored for a sophisticated palate.” But seasons apparently changed between visits; the punch on our second trip, a spicy rum / cider concoction that our server proudly declared was based on cider she had helped press the prior weekend after a staff field trip to the orchard, was perfectly delicious. It was full-bodied but still bright, even flowery. The cocktail menu promises some other temptations — the Model Behavior ($7) is Stoli, soda, and Emergen-C — so a fuller investigation may be in order. Graze’s draft beer list is a lovely work of curation, featuring about a dozen taps from Wisconsin breweries (plus Bell’s of Kalamazoo, MI).
A few plates didn’t light up my party. We differed on whether the potatoes in the gratin ($8) were sufficiently tender, but it was as richly cheesy as a Wisconsin pub would be expected to serve. Given the salt and fat explosion of the fries-and-aioli combo, the panko onion rings ($5, or as a garnish) seemed too wholesome, an exercise in breading vegetables rather than a greasy treat.
The pork shoulder ramen lunch ($10), with vivid radishes and bok choy, arrived in a great splash of color, which was a pleasant contrast to the mild flavor of the savory broth; the side of pepper oil added a little dimension. Still, the pork belly seemed particularly fatty, and the whole egg at the bottom of the bowl couldn’t have been poached more softly, with even some of the albumen still liquid inside. If that sounds outside your gustatory range, caveat cenator, but it was easily the most popular dish at lunch that day, on each of the three tables between us and the door.
Finally, the seaberry snowcone ($1) was a real disappointment. The syrup had a lovely apricot flavor, but the difference between properly shaved ice and the crunchy, frozen-together beads of ice that each smuggled a drop of flavor-diluting water on your tongue as you chew is the difference between a balloon and an anvil, proving just how well-honed whimsy has to be.
That said, there’s whimsy inherent in inviting Madison’s foodies to graze, and Chef Miller and company have pulled off their concept with élan. Its constant crowds and approving buzz are warranted; Graze brings L’Etoile’s firepower to the semi-casual dining market while reinforcing their core identity. Theirs is a crowded market segment in downtown Madison, but if Graze keeps doing as much right as they do, they won’t be put out to pasture.
BEST BET: The short rib. If hunks of meat are your thing, this is as deliciously as I’ve had one prepared.
Gastropub on Madison’s Capitol Square
1 S Pinckney St
Madison, WI 53703
OWNERS: Tory Miller, Tracy Miller, Dianne Christensen
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / Iffy
ENTREE RANGE: $10-$23