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Friday, November 21, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 29.0° F  A Few Clouds
The Daily
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The glass is greener at Graze
Opening weekend shows promise, but there's work still to be done
The items we did order were delicious.
Credit:Kyle Nabilcy

My wife and I went to Sundance Cinemas at Hilldale on Saturday. The fellow in line ahead of us was discussing with his companion the new place that opened alongside L'Etoile.

"Graze," he confirmed. Slight pause. "Yeah, I went to Graze," he repeated the name more loudly, "on Thursday, for friends and family night. So they paid for everything." This is a common occurrence for soft openings, but it was the volume and conspicuous nature of the pronouncement that made me smile.

In fewer than 72 hours of being in business, Graze has developed enough social cachet to be bragged about. Of course, when your chef is Tory Miller, a subset of the population will be automatically and rightfully impressed. Count me among the people who was excited but hesitant about the gastropub concept; I was worried that it'd feel forced, or tacked on.

The biggest worry, for me, was the location. Yes, the view is incredible. But would the aesthetic of the new restaurants be able to overcome the fact that it's a bank building? In two words, mostly yes. Graze definitely doesn't feel like a bank lobby, though one commenter on Twitter remarked that it felt like a hotel lobby bar.

You can see the decor for yourself just by walking past the place -- or by checking this photo gallery. The application of grassy green accents is smart and visually pleasing. Everything feels appropriate for the gastropubby, farm-to-table concept, from the spacing of tables to the straight-backed but comfortable aluminum chairs.

We were seated in the front-most corner table, a nice bookend to the corner banquette we shared for our closing-night meal at the original L'Etoile. This seat, too, might have been the best in the house; we had the best view of the Capitol, by far. When we arrived just after 7 p.m. on Saturday, the outdoor patio was sparsely populated, and the interior wasn't much more full. The communal high table was empty, and most of the traffic was at the bar.

By 7:45, it was an entirely different story. Nearly every table was full, including the high table. While the chatter upon our arrival was brisk and constant, the buzz increased geometrically once the place was packed. A couple of women, clearly in the restaurant business, talked shop with some of the Graze staff at the table next to us. Down the way, Chef Miller stopped out to meet a table of six.

"There's a $20 burger on the menu," our proud line-mate had said, back at Sundance, "ground top sirloin." His moment was spoiled slightly when his friend said matter-of-factly that sirloin isn't actually the best meat for burgers (the Washington Post recommends chuck, while Alton Brown blends chuck and sirloin). "Well, I don't remember what's all in it," he continued, abashed, "but it was the best burger I've ever had."

Sirloin, ribeye, and short ribs are what's all in it, and I expect it would be quite good. The menu covers a lot of ground (appropriate, given the meaning of the restaurant's name), with ample small-plate items and enough bigger-ticket main courses to keep the hungriest diners happy. $20 might seem like a lot for a plate of pork, for example, but I saw one walk by, and it was hefty. Multiple bones of ribs, plus sausage, pulled pork, mac and cheese and collard greens, and a biscuit that I'm told strongly resembles the famed Red Lobster cheesy biscuit. A cheeky reference, but undeniably tasty.

The items we did order were no less delicious. Baby rice popcorn topped with black truffle oil and sarvecchio was a luxurious and ample basket for a couple bucks. Pork buns, a reference perhaps to David Chang's Momofuku Noodle Bar in New York, were juicy and topped with pungent pickled vegetables. The croque madame is served on brioche that turns into savory bread pudding when topped with ham, cheese, and egg; the egg was a touch underdone, but the flavors were incredible and actually went quite well with the popcorn.

There are plenty of offal items for the adventurous modern foodie: beef tongue pastrami (a bit chewy, but delicious), roasted bone marrow, and a charcuterie plate with head cheese. I hope to see more as the menu evolves and shifts, and as Chef Miller earns his gastropub stripes with diners perhaps not used to the "nasty bits." Other dishes, like the artesian rainbow trout, were already earning praise from diners within earshot.

A kindred spirit sat behind me, telling his female companion how much he enjoyed the pairing of dessert and booze. Of the four pies on the menu that day, a hickory nut pie was duly liquored up, and the hot fudge sundae features a whiskey caramel. I went with the sundae, and while the whiskey was lost a bit in the rich ice cream and hickory nuts, it was still lick-the-dish good. The sno-cones, another playful entry on the menu, could stand to be made of a finer chop of ice; the syrups, which included the underutilized seaberry, made them well worth the dollar.

Graze is still a work in progress, with expanded hours to come. (As such, this is meant to be read as a first glance at what's happening, and not a review of the food. Editor's note.) But name recognition is already there, and the crowd was noticeably younger than at the former location of L'Etoile. Making a connection with a new demographic is important, and with creative food, a striking ambiance, and the social visibility of Chef Miller, Graze is doing just that.

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