When a new spot opens in town, we can't wait to check it out and let you know our initial impressions. First Taste, as the name implies, is not a full-blown review, but instead a peek inside restaurants that have just opened, sampling a few items, and satisfying curiosities (yours and ours).
Restaurant: Spoke & Wheel Location: 8525 North Central Avenue Open: One week Eats: Upscale tavern food Price: $11 to $30 per person
Open just one week, and with almost as many bicycles near the front entrance as cars in its parking lot, Spoke & Wheel, Sunnyslope's new bike-friendly restaurant, already has captured the attention of both two- and four-wheeled travelers in the neighborhood.
Located in the former Dillon's, the restaurant comes courtesy of Wildthyme Restaurant Group, whose associates include Heinrich Stasiuk and chef Mercer Mohr, owners of Timo, their wine bar just north of Spoke & Wheel, and Brick, a gourmet pizzeria downtown.
But Spoke & Wheel has some work to do before it can lose the training wheels.
The menu, created by chef-owner Mohr, is a listing of upscale tavern food in the form of small plates, sharable dishes, and entrees. In the adult libations category, there are signature cocktails with names like The Drunk Biker and Easy Rider, as well as wine and beer.
For now, you should probably skip the short rib poutine ($7.85), a small and sad-looking offering of flavorless cheese curds, dry pieces of short rib, and an oxtail gravy tasting mostly of wine. The same advice could be taken for the three street tacos ($8.95). Overfilled with average chicken and chopped steak and a less-than-acceptable seared tuna, they suffered from bland toppings and housemade corn tortillas that do not taste housemade. The best thing about the dish is the accompanying cup of white bean soup.
Burgers and sandwiches do better.
There is a decent jalapeño burger ($7.65/quarter-pound, $9.95/half-pound) with a meaty, well-seasoned patty of sirloin strip and short rib. Layered with fresh jalapeños, caramelized onions, Sriracha, pepper jack cheese, and chipotle mayo on a soft brioche bun, it's a spicy and satisfying bite. Perhaps next time the patty will be prepared to my requested temperature of medium rare instead of medium well.
As with the burger, there are some good things going on with Mohr's version of the classic Philly cheesesteak ($11.85) such as flavorful beef, fresh peppers, and a gooey cheddar cheese sauce. Too bad the sandwich's Italian bread was overcooked.
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Unfortunately, what Stasiuk and Mohr seem to have forgotten about completely is the service. With a clear lack of training, the staff seems less than in-the-know about the dishes. An absence of bussers and lack of help for servers when it comes to the most essential of service duties results in empty water glasses and dirty plates sitting in front of guests until the bill arrives.
The space is longer than you might think when you look at it from the outside, divided into a couple of rather odd little rooms, an open main eating area with a high-ceiling and a bar, and an tapered outdoor patio. Weathered wood floors, white walls, and bicycle-themed artwork make the main dining area feel welcoming and friendly (there's even a gaming station for kids), but a ridiculous number of TVs (all tuned to sports) is distracting. And the audio from one of them blaring on speakers overhead make the room unnecessarily noisy. The environment was more sports bar than bicycle-friendly tavern.
At this point, it's difficult to imagine that Spoke & Wheel comes from the same folks who own the popular Timo just up the street. When Timo opened in 2011, its first days were far more successful. Perhaps Stasiuk and Mohr will remember why and apply those learnings to their newest venture -- and quickly.