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Revisiting Spoke & Steele: Better by a lot, with a long way to go


In one of those charming, small-town-ish moments, I ended up being seated at a communal table with Spoke & Steele General Manager Nick Clark and Executive Chef Tyson Peterson. We had a long conversation about the process of opening the Le Meridian-based downtown spot. Both came to Indy to manage and cook from Utah resort the St. Regis Deer Valley, and the back-and-forth melee of an opening ran on a lot of redeye flights and cups of coffee.  

My initial impression of the place was that it was opened long before
 it was ready, which they agreed with. They invited me back to see their improvements on the menu and the cocktails. In particular, they have a couple of ready-made cocktails both on draft and aging in barrels. They had built up their list of local purveyors, and I was looking forward to checking out the new things they had to show off. 

I ordered one of their draft cocktails, The Hooch, which was fruity and fizzy and refreshing. If they had a patio and it was over 65, I'd like to have it there. Our server called it a "quick cocktail," appealing to those who don't like to wait for all that stirring and shaking (I'm not sure why 5 minutes is an exceptionally long wait, but I guess I understand the appeal for a bedraggled business traveler who wants to drink now). This house favorite made sense, as it had a crowd-pleasing appeal (which is not always a bad thing). 

We ordered the fried anchovies, meatballs, and root vegetable small plates to share. 

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. 

But it was also priced at $33, and that's the part that I cannot get my head around. This large dish was solid, but overly simplistic when compared to its peers in the market and just plain overpriced. The sprouts were equally delicious, with plenty of color and not overcooked. Still, I wanted it to be just a little...more, given the steep price tag. It seemed like something I could accomplish at home, save for the dry aging.  

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. 

Similarly, the draft cocktails inexplicably cost several dollars more than most of the mixed-to-order cocktails. Between my two cocktails, the draft drink cost me $13 while the mixed drink only cost $9. Either the tap handles are guarded by saber-toothed trolls who the servers must pay a hefty fine, or someone's getting screwed. Still, this would not be my choice for a great cocktail with the Libertine, Nicky Blaine's, Ball & Biscuit, and Thunderbird only a short Uber away. 

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. 

The interior space is gorgeous, with lots of white, deep brown, and deep blue. Unfortunately, at the moment, while it is worlds better than the restaurant that began in that space, it just can't compete with so many of its downtown neighbors—not yet, at least. 

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. 

And that might not be the fault of the chef; I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt that ultimately, they're serving hotel guests, so they have to appeal to a wide variety of tastes. Here, though, is where the management needs to make a crucial decision: do they want to be a hotel restaurant, or do they want to be a restaurant in a hotel? The gulf between the two is wide. While it's good to serve good dish components, I'm worried that the menu is being unnecessarily limited by an underestimation of the average Hoosier palate. You can't serve roasted chicken with mashed potatoes and asparagus for $24 and expect to deter anyone off of their path to Mass Ave, Fletcher Place or Fountain Square. 

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. 

When you get the necessities down (perfectly nailing a medium pork chop or finding the perfect breading for your protein), sometimes the extra details get overlooked. And when you're on a sharp upward of trajectory of improvement, it can be easy to take a breather on plateaus of "good" and bask in the warmth of knowing you are improving. 

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. 


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