Small plates in nice places: Graft
Get the deep-fried chevre, and explore the line between stupid and clever on taco night.
Madison has wonderful fine-dining restaurants, but they mostly come with hefty price tags. In this column Tone Madison will explore ways to get you into the better restaurants and get you out without breaking your bank. Of course, even when eating light, remember to tip heavy.
We are so used to the Capitol building, with its fascinating and grand history, that it can become invisible. But looking out on this colossus at night from window seating at Graft (a truly bizarre choice in naming, suggesting either the Mafia or surgery) inspires increased appreciation for that spectacular architecture, and Graft, led since 2016 by executive chef Travis Vaughn (formerly of Rare Steakhouse, another swanky eatery on the Square), thereby co-opts the state's finest structure into its dining experience—at least, for certain tables.
The fashionably attired and obviously-on-a-date couple next to us nabbed the best seats in the house, right up front looking directly out on the Capitol, and got out with two fancy-looking cocktails and two orders of short ribs with port sauce and horseradish for just $34 (if we eavesdropped correctly). So it's definitely possible to enjoy this cool interior—design aficionados should definitely have a look at the wine room, and stop for a moment to appreciate the sleek and well-turned bar bisecting the restaurant—along with its beautiful exterior window views, over a nosh without breaking the bank.
We decided to spend more on food and a bit less on alcohol than our best-seat neighbors, and did pretty well. As usual, the cheapest wines are simple table wines, priced nicely at $6 each. The Spanish 2015 Baron de Ley Rioja is light, and mild, with no long finish but a lovely nose invoking cantaloupe and honeydew melons, with smatterings of nectarine on the back of the tongue. An easy drinker. The Carnigan Sola Fred, Montsant, 2011 of Catalunya has a nose of tilled fields and black dirt; a basic glass with absolutely no legs that does the job of a ruddy streetworker (in other words, go for the Rioja).
The bread basket is critical here. Warm slices of Madison Sourdough rounds and house-made monkey bread, a Hungarian invention (savory at Graft as opposed to the typically cinnamon-suffused original, the name referring to how monkeys eat by pulling apart food with their fingers), both of which shine whether slathered in good butter or slung through plated sauces, are key to maximizing your cost-to-fullness ratio at only $3.
Confession: this column wants to get it right the first time, but after the initial foray we guiltily returned twice to try our favorites—like the short rib ($13), maybe the best thing on the menu—and some other constructions of a relatively frugal meal. All three times we found ourselves ordering the deep-fried chevre with black pepper and honey gastrique ($6). These are high-end cheese balls. Tart meets sweet meets a tickle at the back of the throat when the chevre is dragged through that lovely glaze and then sent into your gullet; it's a must-order.
Pork bellies ($12) are subtle, light, slightly smoky, complex, sugary, and edged with the kind of crisped fat no one will want to cut off and dispose of, served on a bed of soba noodles with tart marinated carrots and alfalfa sprouts in a broth of what might have been miso-infused soy with mirin and ginger. No one could tell us for sure, and we asked our waiter, the host, and even a busboy. Fine dining restaurants, don't do this—servers should know every ingredient in every dish, not only in the interest of culinary expertise, but but to steer customers away from allergic reactions, like anaphylaxis induced by peanut oil they didn’t know about.
Our tab: One glass Baron de Ley Rioja, one glass Sola Fred, one bread plate, one fried chevre, one pork belly, three Tuesday tacos —$45.37 before tip.
Planning notes: On Tuesdays, Graft makes tacos. Sometimes they are traditional, sometimes experimental, but in all cases three substantial tacos cost just $9. We enjoyed the somewhere-between-clever-and-stupid lemon zest-dusted mozzarella and meatball tacos, lightly daubed with marinara—at the very least, they're filling and fun to talk about. It was quite busy for our Tuesday 7:30 p.m. reservation, with a full bar and most of the dining room taken. We couldn't figure out if there was a convention in town, or if it was just the tacos.
Also within reach: Mac and cheese with buttermilk spätzle, topped with gouda and breadcrumbs, is $7. Tagliolini with balsamic and mushrooms are $13 and not particularly inspiring. There are worse examples of fried chicken ($5) on a slider in the world, but I couldn't say where; avoid this greasy, collard green-draped mess.
Stretch goals: Graft explicitly bills itself as a "small plates" restaurant. It's really the tapas trip, Spanish table wines and all. However, the $60 dry aged bone-in ribeye with mushrooms, polenta, and red wine reduction might well be your top choice if someone shouts, "order anything you like, this one's on me!"