My initial impression of the place was that it was opened long before
The anchovies were cornmeal-breaded and perfectly crunchy. They were served with whole, grilled hot peppers and a little pool of aioli. I ended up eating them in pairs, then started munching on just the peppers alone, which came unseasoned and grill-marked. This dish was good, but I ended up wanting there to be something more in the dish than was there. Even with a little sprinkle of lemon, while I enjoyed the salty munches, I kept going back expecting that they pack more punch.
Similarly, I expected that the roasted root veggies have a lot more color, but they came to the table lightly roasted without a lot of caramelization, which was kind of a bummer. Nonetheless, it had a fresh little zingy yogurt sauce and came dressed with pea shoots. It was good, but not outstanding, and could have used overall more seasoning and layers of flavor.
The meatballs were good, dressed with a very sweet tomato sauce and served atop potato skins—a little bit of comfort food on the short small plates menu. Out of the small plates we tried, this was the favorite, even with the sweetness of the sauce served overtop. It seemed that the high-low thing works here, when favorites come dressed up in new ways.
Last, we ordered the dry-aged pork chop to share, which came served on maple-glazed brussels sprouts. This was a very well done piece of meat, served medium and well-seasoned. Here, the pork really stood out: crisp skin, concentrated flavor, simplicity in seasoning, just a very well-prepared piece of meat.
Just a few streets over at Cerulean, I could get a gorgeous, perfectly-sous vide duck breast with carrots done two ways on a plate that looks more like art for significantly less money in an equally gorgeous space, and with more local sources and more house-made ingredients. I could say the same thing about the equally-close Tinker Street, Black Market, or Bluebeard. And Cerulean, similarly, is a restaurant within a hotel, but it is decidedly not "hotel food."
They offered "simply-prepared proteins"—all of their proteins from the entrees served alone. Again, these seemed exorbitantly marked up for what was being served. For what I paid relative to what I got, I would rather take my money up to Tyler Herald's new Public Greens and get an equally well-prepared standalone protein for at least half of the price (and probably less), and my money would go to feed hungry kids in my community.
The service was outstanding, and for that the management should be lauded. But again, in Indianapolis, friendly, prompt and well-informed servers are the rule, not the exception.
It's not even that the food was bad, to be clear, it just was not on par with the hotel's interior or the prices. Everything was good, but good is not good enough when you're so close to so much amazing dining, and you're sharing footprint space with a boutique hotel.
On the other hand, it was nice to be able to be disappointed in a corporate-backed spot compared to all of these independently-owned restaurants. Quite simply, the food here cannot compete with its peers, and certainly not for its price. I wanted to like it, but came away feeling like the $78 I spent on my meal before a $20 tip was not worth what I got on the plate. They might be able to get away with that menu if they cut their prices by a third or triple their flavors and dish components. They might be able to get away with it if they spend more time perfecting their plating. And if they keep on their trajectory of improvement, they might get there in a few more months. As of right now, though, they're still not ready to go head-to-head with restaurants serving that level of food.
It bears repeating: Indianapolis is no longer a city where "good" is good enough to make it. S&S's menu is a huge improvement on what was coming out of the kitchen and bar during their rushed opening, but it still has a long way to go before it becomes a major player.
However, if Spoke & Steele wants to be a hotel restaurant, then they're on the right track. It would be unfortunate, though, if this gorgeous space only ever houses faceless corporate hotel fare instead of a reflection of the creativity of the community channeled through the chef. It's absolutely possible, but it's not yet happening in that hotel filled with the ghosts of old dining grandeur.
What will be interesting is whether or not Peterson will be allowed by the higher-ups in the restaurant's corporate management to experiment and keep inching out on the limb. I certainly hope so.
In a city where some restaurants are serving caviar pie (What's up, Late Harvest Kitchen), out of town chefs need to be careful not to decide what is or is not too complicated for our palates. True, we are a city filled every weekend with out-of-county tourists and Future Farmers of America, but if Spoke & Steele wants to make a lasting impression and stick around, they're going to have to make a more sophisticated, experimental splash than the good, serviceable, simplistic food that I had there on Friday.