Cool Comfort: A Review of Spoke & Steele
A downtown beauty is full of surprises.
It seems odd, at first, finding a dish named Mormon Funeral Potatoes at a restaurant as posh as Spoke & Steele. What business does a lowly hashbrown casserole, baked in its own cast-iron skillet and crowned with cornflakes, have here—among barrel-aged cocktails and deep clamshell make-out booths, in an establishment that bills itself as “the next big thing in downtown Indy”? You get your answer in one bite of creamy, crunchy, church-potluck umami, its cheesy depths touched by sour cream, studded with potatoes cooked into submission, and sweetened by a delicate crust of breakfast cereal—a hot dish as lusciously complex as any bespoke cuisine.
Spoke & Steele is full of surprises like that. Opened over the winter with the $13 million renovation of downtown’s historic Canterbury Hotel, now part of the international Le Meridien luxury chain, this sleek 70-seater occupies the front half of the 1928 building’s street level. A suited doorman stands at the entrance, and the occasional porter guides a loaded luggage cart past the hostess stand. Mad Men could film an episode in the adjacent lounge of low-slung sofas and Danish-style curved-wood chairs. And the dining room features a slate-on-white color scheme with a manly motorsports theme (the Steve McQueen Room is a VIP homage to the King of Cool’s flinty profile), starburst light fixtures, and dimly lit alcoves. Patrons can sip a throat-warming bourbon drink called Le Mans Rough Rider (which includes, among other ingredients, raisin-spiced liqueur, bacon syrup, and smoked paprika) beside a white-brick fireplace. Or they can belly up to a showpiece bar for classic cocktails shaken by a handsome mixologist in gray suspenders.
Of course, Spoke & Steele would be but an empty tufted-leather shell if its kitchen staff didn’t match skills with the decorator.
Of course, Spoke & Steele would be but an empty tufted-leather shell if its kitchen staff didn’t match skills with the decorator. Luckily, the menu—composed by chef Tyson Peterson, whose resume includes a recent stint at legendary chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s J & G Grill in Park City, Utah—strikes a balance between fine dining and solid, crowd-pleasing fare. Seared crispy bass, an early hit, sits atop charred-corn pudding so that the earthy sweetness of the vegetable mingles with the meaty white Antarctic fish, set off by an acidic garnish of marinated Brussels-sprout leaves and grape tomatoes. A dry-aged pork chop, as thick and richly marbled as a bone-in ribeye, gleans even more flavor from a base of truffle-maple sauce (a better-composed choice than the oversalted soy-braised short rib buried under a sticky tangle of onion marmalade).
Peterson is just as impressive when he’s having fun. The chef’s Shredder burger basks in the number-one spot on a selection of Large Plates. Rightfully so. A scrim of Indiana-produced Steckler cheddar melts into the crevices of its loose-packed beef patty, topped with ribbons of iceberg and a generous glop of Utah Fry sauce, an addictive pinkish condiment that, without apology, combines ketchup with mayonnaise and some pickle juice. Gourmet pots de creme are scooped out of squat glass jars, as is a smoky salmon dip as thick as cream cheese. And the wedged #frites (pronounced “hashtag frites”) are stacked and configured on the plate in the shape of social media’s favorite punctuation mark, but I would update my status with them regardless. The skins are crisped with sea salt. The insides, fluffy and hot.
The Le Meridien chain—which has locations from Cairo to Fuji to Qingdao—tries to give each of its hotels a sense of place unique to the city. If Peterson, tasked with a regionally inspired menu that changes with the seasons and the ephemeral nature of Indiana produce, had to do a bit of culinary archeology, he unearthed a treasure in the pork-belly corn dogs. As hulking and misshapen as the State Fair stars, these fried-cornbread zeppelins replace the hotdog with velvety strips of uncured pork. The combination of textures—fat melting into breading that’s crisped on the outside—along with the whimsy of eating fried food on a stick, brilliantly taps into the Hoosier-foodie gestalt. Love it or hate it. Either way, biting into all those silky layers of pork belly might make you feel like you’ve died and gone to heaven. Just be sure to stop at the wake for a scoop of Funeral Potatoes.
Spoke & Steele
123 S. Illinois St., 317-737-1616, spokeandsteele.com
Hours Mon.–Sun. 6 a.m.–midnight