Madison: Burger Greatness for Meat Eaters and Vegetarians at Graze

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[Photographs: Daniel Zemans]

Graze

1 S. Pinckney Street, Madison, WI 53703 (map); 608-251-2700; grazemadison.com
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: Top-tier chef passes on cheffiness to put together exquisite but simple burger; vegetarians are also well taken care of on the burger front
Want Fries With That? Yes, yes, and yes, but the cheese curds will rock your world
Price: Pub Burger, $11; Roasted Beet & Walnut Burger, $10; Fried Sassy Cow cheese curds, $8
Notes: A fancier burger is also available at dinner

In the world of half-pound burgers, there are chefs who view the patty as the be all and end all of the burger, and there are those who see the beef as a platform on which to pile an increasingly bold array of toppings that are as much a part of the finished product as the half-pound of cow. I find joy in both styles, but there's no question that those who stand behind a basic patty with minimal toppings are taking the more challenging route to customer satisfaction.

There can be no doubt that executive chef and co-owner Tory Miller, best known as one of the culinary forces behind the nationally renowned L'Etoile, has the skills to put out a delicious and creative spin on a burger, but at L'Etoile's casual offshoot Graze, Miller delivers a straightforward bacon cheeseburger, named the Pub Burger. After trying it last summer, Ed Levine named it his favorite burger of 2010—but in that instance, Miller knew he was making the burger for a food critic and even hand-delivered it to Ed. On a recent drive through Madison, I stopped to meet a friend for lunch to discover whether a regular schmo like me would get something just as good.

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I'll end the suspense early: Everything about this burger is outstanding. As is the case at L'Etoile, the menu at Graze is a celebration of food produced in Wisconsin. For the patty itself, that means using locally sourced grass-fed Highland beef from Fountain Prairie Inn & Farms. This fresh meat is about as good as ordinary ground beef can get.

The burger comes with what seems like a relatively pedestrian combination of toppings: bacon, cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato, pickle, onion, mayonnaise, mustard, and ketchup. But the crunchy pickles are made in house; the other vegetables taste like they must have been picked within the previous day or two; the splendid cheddar is from Hook's Cheese Company; and the housemade, hand-cut, thick pieces of bacon add a welcome yet subdued dose of salty pork.

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I ordered my burger rare and I got a textbook example. This juicy, well-seasoned patty came with a nice crust on the outside and a middle that was warm but otherwise unaffected by fire. And holding everything together was a housemade English muffin that worked better than I expected. I'm not ready to give up hamburger buns, but I did enjoy the extra chew and there's no denying this was top notch bread.

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I've written about 60 reviews for A Hamburger Today and I've never reviewed a veggie burger. And until I went to Graze, I thought I never would. Actually, that's not quite accurate—before I went to Graze, I didn't think about veggie burgers enough to actually consider ordering one. It's not just that I'm a devoted carnivore, but veggie burgers often seem to be afterthoughts, only available to give vegetarians something to eat while all their friends are eating cow, and not a menu item the kitchen takes seriously.

At Graze, the veggie burger is no menu add-on; this bright patty is a result of some serious outside-the-box thinking in the kitchen. The Roasted Beet & Walnut Burger is a simple combination of beets and ground walnuts along with a little egg to bind it all together. The delicious beets are clearly the star of the patty, but the ground walnuts add a level of substance—almost meatiness—that just doesn't exist in most veggie burgers.

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The veggie burger is served on an excellent housemade pita brioche covered with ground pumpkin seeds. The bread had the benefits of egg and butter that make some brioches excellent but was wisely in the form of a much thinner body. The cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, red onions, and arugula were all great, and the feta cheese and oregano vinaigrette both added some welcome bite to balance out the sweet beets. The only flaw was the overdose of dill in the too generously applied Greek yogurt, but even taking that into account, this is one veggie burger that can make meat lovers happy.

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There's really not much I can add to the picture of the fries since one look reveals these are supermodel fried potatoes. These golden sticks, dusted with large grains of salt, are crisp on the outside, creamy on the inside, and explode with potato flavor. The fries are served with a housemade garlic aioli that is good but altogether pointless since nobody should put a thing on these potatoes.

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As good as the fries are, they pale in comparison to the cheese curds. I thought my cheese curd life peaked when I went to The Old Fashioned last year (located just a few steps from Graze). Even though it's been 14 months since I had them, those curds haunt me, but the ones at Graze are better in every way. Graze starts with curds from Sassy Cow Creamery and then eschews the traditional beer batter for vodka batter that magically transform large hunks of melted cheese into something that almost seems light.

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Unless you've been to Graze, my dog has eaten better cheese curds than you.

The curds are available as a separate appetizer or as a replacement for fries for a $2 upcharge. The fries were great, but upgrading to the curds is one of the best $2 food deals you'll find.

About the author: Daniel Zemans is so devoted to Chicago that he covers pizza for Slice and burgers for A Hamburger Today.

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