Late this summer, Northwestern tapas hub Graze replaced the regrettable Nina's Place in the glassed-in building that looms at Northwest 10th Avenue and Lovejoy Street. The first thing you notice about the space is that it's huge. In addition to its sprawling indoor area, patios seat another 100 diners—at least. And, almost always, far more seats are empty than full.
Maybe that's because despite amiable service and white tablecloths, the space feels cold and lonely, especially at night—although its weekend brunch has a higher attendance. Graze's menu aims for small plates, mostly seasonal and tweaked for Northwest cuisine, but its liquid offerings sometimes trump the food. The wine list offers choices that won't send you to the credit counselors—most bottles cost less than $30—and the bar menu features such elaborate choices as a pleasantly puckery margarita mixed with galangal-Szechuan-peppercorn-infused tequila, prickly-pear puree, Cointreau and lime juice.
But back to the ambitious Northwest-twisted menu, which strives for a dozen each of hot and cold small plates. In early fall the Caprese was stacked with local organic heirloom tomatoes, and hazelnuts crusted the rather dry chicken satay. You've seen these dishes before, and who can complain? Tasting from several small dishes rather than from one big entree can unleash an adventurous dining romp—especially when you split the price (most choices cost $7-$9).
The best of the bunch? Crisp and perfectly salted, hand-cut French fries, spiked with earthy truffle oil and served with a tarragon aioli ($7); a retro "wedge" salad of iceberg lettuce dressed with Rogue River Creamery's Rogue River Blue ($7.50); and a dish of miniature tamales blissfully pairing blackberries and duck confit. Graze chef-owner Katherine Browning's expertly fried calamari ($9) are thoughtfully rolled in rice flour; she has a gluten allergy and is tuned in to requests.
But aside from those highlights—including soups like a recent Dungeness crab vichyssoise rich enough for coronary inducement—Graze's menu can be underwhelming in concept and taste. Those soups, many which are often veggie-based, taste sublime but arrive in such teeny-tiny doll-sized cups that diners will do double-takes. And Graze's desserts failed to impress beyond their $4-$6 price tag. Recently, a fresh-fruit Napoleon layered with vanilla pastry cream and berries flopped, as did a lifeless flourless chocolate cake.
Graze does cultivate helpful, efficient waitstaff. But now it should turn to tuning up its tapas in hopes of filling its vast cavern of a dining room.
Graze, 939 NW 10th Ave., 808-9888. Dinner 4-10 pm Sunday-Thursday, 4-11 pm Friday-Saturday. Brunch 7 am-2:30 pm Saturday-Sunday. $$-$$$ Moderate-Expensive.