A small-plates spot has a neighborhood feel nowhere near a real neighborhood.
"Where?" my friend repeated.
“Dearborn and Ontario,” I said again. She looked at me as if I suggested we were getting dinner in Valparaiso. Not quite, but if the Gold Coast earned the nickname Viagra Triangle for drawing the middle-aged, rich and ready to “party,” the immediate area around Dearborn and Ontario could be dubbed Bengay Basin. With Red Lobster, Rainforest Café, Melting Pot, the McDonald’s on steroids, Excalibur and Hard Rock Café all in a two-block radius, it’s not uncommon to find wide-eyed, fanny pack–clad blue-hairs wandering around our version of Times Square. But it is uncommon to find a restaurant with good food, a great and affordable wine program and a neighborhood feel.
We were impressed. And not just because Graze surpassed our expectations (and eventually got us to overlook the campy log-, grass- and flower-clad country-field decor), but because out of the 16 small plates we sampled during two visits, only a couple were flawed. It helps that service is approachable and honest—one server steered us clear of the sausage pizza and braised lamb short ribs, explaining, “I can’t really recommend them to you in good faith…we’re working on them.”
What he did recommend was a steal: two half glasses of nearly 50 options for only $10. And for the next visit, I took another server’s rec and tried a half carafe of the house white, getting three glasses of respectable sauvignon blanc for $12. With deals like that, you get the idea that whoever set up the beverage program likes to drink and wants you to do the same.
Sampling different wines works perfectly with the small plates menu, which, true to the restaurant’s name, is an ideal platform for grazing. To start, and for a good indicator of chef Bob Zrenner’s style (Zrenner was chef at X/O Chicago, along with Graze’s pastry chef Jordan Rappaport), go for the mizuna–and–Granny Smith apple salad. Drizzled with lemon vinaigrette and topped with croutons and Manchego cheese, it’s simple but perfectly balanced, fresh and delicious. Ditto for ahi tuna nachos; with greaseless wonton chips and tart kick from yuzu and wasabi caviars, they’re a perfect light starter.
Things get a little heavier with the warm plates, but they still manage to taste light and fresh. A pile of tender, braised carrot–dotted oxtail is rich, but the pillowlike pasta pockets of celery-root puree alongside provide balance. Pizzas from the stone hearth are ultra-thin; the best of the bunch is the version that tops the bubbled, crackerlike crust with sage cream and bits of roasted pumpkin (pictured).
Of the small entrées, the crispy perch wrapped in greens and phyllo (pictured) and the tandoori-confitish duck leg are winners, but the quality of the filet and the pork tenderloin aren’t quite top-notch (which is probably how the chef can afford to charge just $14 and $10, respectively). But ending with either the satin-smooth espresso crème brûlée or the surprisingly good cheesecake ravioli will confirm that this is still a great restaurant. If only it could rub off on its neighbors.—Heather Shouse
35 W Ontario St at Dearborn St (312-255-1234). El: Red to Grand. Bus: 22 (24 hrs), 65, 156. Lunch, dinner. Average small plate: $11.