by Ali Seiter
“Oh, my gosh…oh, my gosh, Connor, it’s TORY MILLER!” My dining compatriate Connor and I sat in two sleek, stainless steel chairs in the foyer area connecting Chef Tory’s two restaurants—the elegant showcase of farm-to-table cuisine (not to mention longtime Madison phenomenon) L’Etoile, and its more casual (read: less expensive) sister Graze. While eagerly awaiting a seating in the latter’s dining room (while we only waited for about 20 minutes, those who arrived shortly after us ended up waiting an hour or more!), I spotted my culinary idol and locavore hero Chef Tory entering through the glass doors of L’Etoile, thus inspiring my absolute squeal of star-struckedness. Not an uncommon occurence, I often allow my epicuriean-world fan girl mentality to overcome my more sane persona, such as when witnessing Chef Tory and his three interns lugging two immense wooden wagons full to the brim with gorgeous summer produce at the August farmers market, or when transporting his freshly made Banh Mi sandwiches from his workstation to the customer at the cash register inside the Food Tent at the 2010 Food for Thought Festival (man, volunteering rocks!).
Needless to say, I enjoy pretending that Chef Tory cooks for me personally when I dine at one of his two delectable eateries—which he does to an extent whenever I request a special vegan meal at L’Etoile, such as for my birthday dinner two years ago. My meal at Graze proved no differently, for upon settling down at our table, I daydreamed of Chef Tory painstakingly crafting the perfect vegan-friendly plate. Sigh…
After sufficiently fawning over my chef icon, I began drinking in both the impeccable atmosphere of Graze and their room temperature water. A true Italian, I scoff at American ice water, which Italians argue shocks the digestive system. The dining room harbors a convivial, comfortable vibe, complete with tiny mason jars holding flickering candles, caged lightbulbs hanging from the ceiling, floor-to-ceiling windows, and servers dressed in plaid flannel shirts (a hipster’s paradise, if you will). Connor and I immediately approved of the indie-style music playing at exactly the right volume in the background, just under the jolly dull roar of happy bar-goers in the center of the room.
I scanned the menu for all of about 12 seconds before admitting to Connor that I had determined what to order about a month prior to our dinner (I had anticipated this meal for a good long while). I began with the House Pickles—a long wooden plank with 7 small ceramic bowls each holding a pile of pickled vegetable heaven, served with a pair of chopsticks.
From back to front: bread-and-butter pickled cucumbers (crisp, sweet, and tangy); traditional Korean kimchi (pungent and probiotic!); soy sauce-marinated daikon radish (I gave this one to Connor since my server informed me that it had fish sauce in it); sweet pickled butternut squash garnished with pumpkin seeds (my favorite of the 7); spicy Escabeche with cauliflower, Romanesco broccoli, and carrots; and citrus-marinated beets. An avid pickle connaisseur, I positively reveled in this platter of preserved veggie genius.
I had built up my entree inside my imagination for a good month before this meal, and the real-life manifestation certainly did not disappoint. The Graze website specifies a veganizable version of their Bibimbap—a Korean-inspired bowl bursting with julienned raw black spanish radish, beauty heart radish, daikon, and carrot topped with gochujhang-smothered marinated tofu and sauteed bok choy all sitting atop three rectangular cakes of crispy rice garnished with scallions.
Oh. My. Goodness. While I’ve previously attested to a fierce loathing of radishes, I could discern none of the harsh, displeasingly spicy radish flavor which I so detest. On the contrary, the crispy texture and clean crunch of the raw veggies perfectly cut the intense spiciness of the gochujang-marinated tofu, which boasted a wonderfully chewy yet not at all overcooked texture. The sauteed bok choy hid just beneath the tofu, planning its sneak attack of mysteriously unctuous smokiness that provoked my jealousy of Chef Tory’s incomparable ability to cook other-wordly greens. My favorite component of the dish, however, rested at the very bottom, soaking up all the leftover gochujang and juices from the bok choy and tofu—the crispy rice cakes. Beautifully crunchy on the outside and surprisingly creamy on the inside with the familiar nutty flavor of expertly simmered rice, the cakes invoked my sheer bliss and erased any potential guilt of ingesting non-brown, refined rice.
Meal Checklist: Protein—tofu, pumpkin seeds. Whole Grain—not whole, but white rice. Vegetables—cucumbers, butternut squash, cauliflower, Romanesco broccoli, carrots, beets, radishes, scallions. Leafy Greens—bok choy, cabbage in kimchi.
While Graze’s menu does not feature many vegan-friendly options, those that they do offer are a vegan diner needs to feel welcomed and satiated. I can hardly contain my bubbling excitement for February 4th, when I will return to Chef Tory’s high-end restaurant L’Etoile for a belated Christmas present from my father.
Until next time, Ali.