When my fellow Indy food critic reviewed Brakeman’s Burgers in early December, he took issue with the titular beef patties, struggling to justify the prices and concluding that the new outfit in the Old Depot felt like it was “standing at the station, waiting for a train that may or may not be coming.”
I had high hopes that when following up to visit the wider project’s other two storefronts, The Sandwich Depot and Track 10 Urban Kitchen, they would be redemptive. Looking back, Giuseppe’s Old Depot Italian restaurant had nearly a four-decade run leading up to its closure in 2011. It was dated; it was time. So seeing the Ochs family invest in a grand overhaul — the spaces do look sharp, still incorporating train schedules, vintage street lamps and other railroad decor — nearly 10 years later we presumed maybe they could revitalize the legacy property with an overhaul perhaps best compared to the Bambino’s brand, which the Megyeri family moved off Platte Avenue and into downtown with a fresh “urban pizzeria.” It worked, and a new generation took the reins.
But here, the “urban kitchen” subtitle seems empty other than to denote that yes, the attempted fine-dining spot is downtown, near all the new development around the Olympic Museum. Aside from the neat, string-lit bubble tents out front, it doesn’t achieve hipness because the food’s actually quite stodgy and institutional based on our limited tastings. A prevailing blandness also pervades The Sandwich Depot, which could be greatly improved with simple seasonings. Once again we checked our receipts at meal’s end to find the value proposition lacking and nothing memorable to lure us back. Bummer — this could have been the Springs’ version of Denver’s Union Station or something.
We also experienced a number of service, communication and atmospheric mishaps that made for bumpy rides between the two establishments. Beginning at the Sandwich Depot, after ordering at the counter it wasn’t made clear whether we were to wait inside for our food or it’d be delivered outside, as we were taking advantage of a sunny day on the front patio. After inquiring, I was told the kitchen usually hollers names (through the original train station ticket window), to check back in about 10 minutes. Meanwhile, we hunted for another staffer to borrow the key to unlock the patio furniture. The staff was friendly, but appeared disoriented, sluggish. (And believe me I’m trying to extend every ounce of COVID-era sensitivity, but life lumbers on and society’s trains must be kept running.)
Our Barista Espresso Milano-bean mocha tastes expectedly sweet but chalky and unbalanced with prominent toasty notes; not exemplary. I don’t ask the price on a can of Rogue Spirits cranberry-elderflower sparkling vodka soda and later learn it’s a silly $12, more than the price of many hand-made cocktails in town. Worse, I dislike the flavor, bitter with lime peel and floral more like bathroom freshener than the celebrated elderflower recently popularized by Meghan Markle.
When I order a bowl of vegan lentil curry, I’m expecting vibrant spice- and herb-rich Thai or Indian flavors — you know... curry! — but instead there’s vapid legumes fit for a can, with a few mushroom slivers as the only highlight. Total misnomer. I read on the online menu that chicken and turkey are hormone-free and all natural, and roasted in-house. (It also states that tri tip is grass-fed from Colorado — though no items on the menu actually contain tri tip.) We order BBQ chicken and cranberry brie sandwiches and find the meats nicely tender, but on the dry side and again lacking much seasoning. As a neutral canvas, that can sometimes work depending on pairings. But here, chipotle aioli atop the chicken sandwich’s crunchy slaw layer bears no smoky chile essence nor significant volume to moisten the meat. (Why not toss it in with it?) It’s a meh bite for $11, though house chips are decent and the pickle spear’s sharp.
The cran-brie sounds like something pleasant you’d do at home to kill Thanksgiving leftovers, and you have as good a chance of pulling it off as Sandwich Depot does. A crumbly, lackluster baguette yields to what tastes like canned cranberry sauce, more underseasoned meat, some funky cheese and another mute aioli. Worse, the side salad is a heap of underdressed, bitter mesclun mix that tastes strongly of raw onions, and dull corn kernels, black beans and chickpeas all evoke canned memories again. Two of us. Two sandwiches and two drinks. Sixty bucks out the door post-tip. Nope.
Arrival at the next station: Track 10. We call for a reso and somehow ring through to Brakeman’s, and are told a reso’s not necessary to get a table tonight, but when we show up 10 minutes later, they’re full, surprised by what the person at Brakeman’s had told us. The bar’s our only option. No biggie. Until they seat two other couples only one seat-gap away (much less than 6 feet) around us. I didn’t want to be this guy, but force my hand — it’s the law and those that flaunt it harm those following it, plus our area enforcement agencies have proved virtually toothless, so it’s up to the public. Plus, what’s this say about Old Depot’s attention to other details?
Meanwhile, we scan the cocktail list and inquire about anything not sweet, as they include nice top-shelf touches but corresponding liqueurs sure to sap us out. With guidance, we settle on the
Centennial State, an Old Fashioned spinoff with Breckenridge Bourbon, requested with less Demerara syrup. Supposedly the glass is smoked and the orange peel flamed, but the citrus isn’t torched at all, and there’s hardly a whiff of smoke either, left more to the imagination. And it’s still quite sweet, not outstanding.
We go for bison short ribs and mushroom-truffle risotto for entrées at $19 and $17 respectively. A fair price — if they were good. The meat tastes like dry pot roast served with something like a salty pre-made demi-glace, and not much of it. Side asparagus spears are limp as train tracks are long, steamed or blanched or something, certainly not charred or properly seasoned, and sweet corn polenta is anything but that — think insipid, instant Quaker grits, not hot on the plate.
True risotto is a thing of creamy, starchy delight evocative of adventures dining in Italy, where pot and pan flips of the good stuff are a show of their own. But trains don’t cross oceans and this one’s again steaming down the tracks in the wrong direction. The herbed broth is partly divorced from the Arborio rice, with “roasted” red bell peppers still mostly raw, mushrooms again the only highlight, Asiago cheese scantly perceptible and the truffle essence unevenly incorporated such that we hit potent pockets. It is a rice dish, but I wouldn’t dignify it by calling it risotto. I finished my food because I was hungry, not because I was compelled to.
Just as with travel, we seek experiences when dining out. They’re our local fix as we excitedly await the next time we get to board a great engine to somewhere. Restaurants need to be atop their game now more than ever as my chef friend recently opined, because increasingly folks who’re largely quarantined at home can create these experiences for themselves, cheaper and often better. Restaurants are not just struggling to survive, but to prove their worth.
I still believe in them wholeheartedly. As some have shown, they have a chance to emerge from this reckoning if they dare necessary reinvention. The Old Depot collective has proven that much courage at least, and their trains have just left the station. It’s not too late to take a turn at the next wye switch and re-conceive the journey, or in this case, the fundamental techniques to execute excellent food and service in a deserving space. Old institutions (and their flavor) must fall away as lessons from the past are learned, or else we will indeed be doomed to standing on the platform awaiting an uncertain arrival, or departure.