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By Jim Duncan Reviews

Graze, 5513 Mills Civic Pkwy., West Des Moines, 223-LIPS (5477), Mon.-Thurs. 11:30 a.m. - 10 p.m.

Graze is no ordinary restaurant

Martinis are the American cocktail — invented in Martinez, Calif., by mixing five parts gin with one part vermouth, stirring in a chilled glass and serving straight up with an olive or lemon twist garnish. H.L. Mencken declared that recipe “the only American invention as perfect as the sonnet.” Brits began messing with that perfection. “Montgomery martinis” were made in 15 to 1 ratio, the odds that a WWII general needed before engaging in battle. Winston Churchill said that any vermouth in his martinis should be invisible. James Bond insisted that his be “shaken, not stirred” and made with vodka instead of gin. Finally, Graze bartenders have retaken the creative high ground for American martini making.

As its name implies, “Graze — the Food Guru Experience” is no ordinary restaurant. It’s a food marketing empire based around a stunning martini bar and two other American traditions — reinventing the wheel and selling the sizzle, not the steak. It’s the fourth restaurant in a chain that began with Martini’s Grille in Burlington and is now part of Food Guru LLC, Chick N. Lip LLC and Chicken Lip Foundation. Together they include restaurants, a cooking school, a pod-casting business, video cookbooks and a charitable foundation that has raised more than $400,000 for mostly children’s causes. Because all that started with martinis, it’s understandable that liberties are taken with traditions. Graze’s “martinis” included many things that could flip Mencken’s bones. A “silly goose” was served with vodka, simple syrup, crème de banana, vanilla schnapps and pineapple juice. Other martinis literally sizzled with dry ice that gooped up in the bottom of the glass. Mainly though, such martinis illustrated the bar’s edge: most specified top end brands; all juices were freshly squeezed, and all syrups (including sweet & sour) were made from scratch daily.

Graze transformed a former Crave venue by preserving all the previous tenant’s vowels, one consonant and little else. Ostentatious design elements include red fantailed booths, spotlighted vodka cabinets and apothecary jars, tall purple walls and an open “private room” that hangs over the bar like a bordello catwalk in a Czech casino. Eclectic video presentations featured martini making, sports, impressionist paintings and world travel. On all my visits, this place was always busy, and women always outnumbered men.

Vegans, who might be attracted by the restaurant’s name, should stick to the martini menu. Graze’s food menu specializes in “appetizers,” but portions were gargantuan compared to entrées in other places. Presentations dazzled but inconsistently. Shrimp on a stick was served sizzling, like those dry ice martinis, but a $2.50 Sprite was served lukewarm in a small, unopened plastic bottle. Dinners were presented stacked on handsome trays, but three different courses came at the same time. Names were quite confusing. The restaurant’s most popular “appetizer,” “chicken lips,” were actually a hefty variation of Buffalo wings made with boneless chicken breasts. They were superb — moist, well seasoned and served with appropriately salty cheese dips.

Self-promotion was relentless and sometimes offensive. I stopped counting menu exclamation points after four, and servers as well as the menu, used the descriptions “awesome” and “big-assed” repeatedly and inappropriately. Like the bartenders, chefs weren’t shy about taking chances or mixing flavors. Shrimp on a stick was as interesting as it looked, with red curry cream cheese, plum sauce, kazu sauce and a spring roll. Chicken sliders came well paired with slaw and mango mayo. Fried lobster has become trendy these days, usually made with tempura and farmed, baby lobsters. Graze’s “lobster fried lobster” was totally different, consisting of unbreaded flesh from full-sized lobsters. That chewy innovation didn’t work. Thin-crusted pizza was grilled, with cloying cheddar cheese and more typical pizza ingredients. Neither an ice cream pie nor cheesecakes were up to the “lips” levels. Prices discriminated in favor of larger groups, perhaps explaining the male to female ratio.

Side Dishes
November produce market reports declare this a great year for supermarket pears, apples, table grapes and asparagus but a bad season for California grown cantaloupe and strawberries… Tournament Club waived corkage fees on Thursdays. CV
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