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Thursday, August 28, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 64.0° F  Partly Cloudy
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Graze takes local sourcing to a new level in Madison
Greener pastures
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Credit:Sarah Lang

No Madison restaurant in recent memory has been the subject of more anticipation than Graze. Chef Tory Miller, having established his reputation at L'Etoile (and his gumption by moving and revamping it), vowed to bring the gastropub here and make it his own. With its playful menu, bold look and extensive local sourcing at a lower price point, Graze promised new food horizons for Madison.

Under the aegis of "comfort food," Miller has cherry-picked an eclectic bunch of cuisines to create a wide-ranging menu: deviled eggs and soft pretzels, pork buns and house pickles, moules frites and croque madame, beef tongue pastrami and, of course, mac and cheese. And that's just dinner. At lunch you can get banh mi, grilled cheese, a Reuben with house-made corned beef...the list goes on. The star is the $19 Graze burger, juicily constructed of sirloin, short ribs and ribeye, finished with caramelized onions and cabernet jus.

Graze's menu also contains a large spectrum of prices. A list of dozens of nearby farms, gardens and cheesemakers adorns the back of the menu, and with this concentration on locally sourced ingredients, higher prices are to be expected. There are some costly items, to be sure; the Graze burger, for one, and the fried chicken and waffle ($16) for another. The burger was well worth the price, while the chicken and waffle were mediocre. But the menu also has some great bargains for $10 and under. The fantastic pub burger comes with the best fries and aioli in town, not to mention bacon. Another good bet is a basket of lily-white popcorn naughtied up with black truffle oil and grated SarVecchio cheese.

On the brunch menu, choose the decadent Nutella-stuffed French toast, spattered with powdered sugar, smoky-salty almonds and deep purple raspberries. The basics come with nice touches, too: My two eggs any style had a gorgeous unexpected side of gold and red cherry tomatoes, a little local love.

The kitchen is still gaining finesse, and a number of dishes I tasted needed more seasoning. On the bland side were potato croquettes, whose ultra-smooth insides lacked chemistry with a goat cheese fondue; panko onion rings; and a picturesque bowl of ramen. But many dishes packed powerful, memorable flavor. The delicate richness of an artesian rainbow trout fillet played beautifully against sweet winter squash and balsamic brown butter, edible proof of Graze's shared lineage with L'Etoile. A beet and arugula salad was modulated by a generous round of pepita-encrusted goat cheese. And the pub burger - well, that's the one I daydream about.

The burgers are some of the winners on this meat-heavy menu; overall, the vegetarian dishes were weaker. While the vegetables were lovely in themselves, there's a tendency to layer oils and fats, perhaps in service of the comfort-food mandate. One recent addition to the menu, zucchini fritters on a warm farro salad, had so many oily components - oven-dried tomatoes in oil, nicoise olives, lemony Greek yogurt and the fritters themselves - that I yearned for lighter, fresher elements. A vegetable fricassee had little succulence save for the seared mushrooms lining the bottom of the dish. I look forward to seeing this area of the menu evolve.

Dessert at Graze is notably fun. Another bargain can be had in the $1 snow cones, which come in flavors like seaberry and tart cherry. But why eat a snow cone when you could have warm, freshly baked chocolate-chip cookies tinseled with flaky salt? The inside and outside are never evenly baked, but they're so dreamy that it doesn't matter.

The pain au chocolat bread pudding was a nightly special that deserves a spot on the menu. It has all the wonderful textural contrasts of a croissant with gooey chocolate and a not-too-sweet vanilla ice cream to boot. The pies of the day are also worthwhile. The toasted hickory nut and bourbon caramel took the pecan formula to evocative new heights, but I really enjoyed the apple. I compare all apple pie unfavorably with my grandma's, and therefore never eat it at restaurants, but I wanted to see if Graze could take Grandma to the mat. Grandma won, but Graze's pie came closer than any other I'd ever tasted. I was duly impressed.

While I've had a few great dishes at Graze, the thing that keeps drawing me back is that exuberant menu. The short rib, the fried Sassy Cow cheese curds with vodka batter, and the chicken-fried steak are all on my list of can't-wait-to-try items. Graze may be a work in progress, but it has quickly ascended the ranks of Madison's most interesting places to eat.

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