Located in the former home of the reviled Nina's Place, Graze is a dinner-oriented eatery that also features a Sunday brunch, a happy-hour menu, and a creative list of house cocktails. Graze goes for a white tableclothed but casual vibe, and it succeeds in part: Outdoor seating is pleasant, and on sunny days a great spot for people- and dog-watching, but the interior feels frigid and faux formal—like the dining hall at an upscale old folks home. The tiny bar is too intimate for comfort, not to mention the two tables awkwardly close to the bathroom. The menu features "Spanish tapas-style" dining, offering a selection of small plates geared toward sharing.
In a way, Graze sums up much of what's hateable about the Pearl District: The food is trendy and overpriced, banking on location and pretentious yuppie palates to float a restaurant that wouldn't stand a chance in any other neighborhood. This is not to say that the food is bad (the menu is hit and miss); this is to say that it's portioned and priced in such a way that the food is not the focus. The focus instead shifts to a vaguely ripped-off feeling that comes to full indignant fruition when you receive your surprisingly large tab for a meal that was both small and sub-par.
On both of my visits to Graze, the service was friendly and personable—so much so that I felt a little betrayed when the duck tamales that one server recommended fell flat. Though the duck itself was moist and flavorful, the doughy tamale shell was thick and dry, making it hard to enjoy the meat inside or the tart blackberries the tamale was paired with. I ended up picking out the duck meat, and leaving the rest of the ingredients in an unharmonious heap.
The truffled French fries with tarragon aioli were quite good, but hardly worth the $7 ticket price: Some quick fry-counting and napkin-math revealed that we were paying about 20 cents a fry. Contrary to the wisdom prevailing at Graze, the application of truffle oil to a food item is not sufficient to make diners lose all perspective on how much said food item is actually worth. Two unimpressive polenta cakes, topped with a spicy house marinara, were a letdown on all fronts: The spice in the marinara added little good in the way of flavor, but the heat made it difficult to taste much else.
Graze has a happy-hour menu in evenings that is somewhat more reasonable: $4 for a tiny portion of fries still hurts, but not as much. I tried the eggplant rolls with basil ricotta: a nice little dish, sort of like lasagna with eggplant subbing for pasta, and so rich and filling that its small size actually felt perfect.
The menu changes regularly, rolling with fresh, seasonal ingredients—can't fault them for that. It's just hard not to feel duped: like someone was trying to trick me into believing that drizzling "blood-orange hollandaise" on some asparagus justifies an $8.50 ticket price. With a more focused menu, and a realistic assessment of how much food costs in this town, Graze might be all right—but until those things happen, I won't be coming back.