In November, chef Greg Menke quietly opened The Root Cellar (101 W Marcy St., 303-3879), a new restaurant to join his other business adventures along the block. His other eatery, The Beestro, is only a few doors down, and the new space lives within his Hive Market.

Menke's new menu is simple with panini and soup. Drinks are local beer, wine and mead. My dinner date got one of their creative beer cocktails—a variation on a snakebite using Bosque Lager and apple cider. I grabbed a Marble Wildflower Wheat. We did taste their mead options, brewed locally by Falcon Meadery, but mead is one of those love-or-hate things. I find it too sweet to drink a whole glass.

For dinner we decided to order two sandwiches and share them: the Cubano ($12.95) and Dutch chicken ($12.50) panini. As we ordered I remembered hearing that the French onion au gratin ($6.50) was a highlight and added a bowl to the order.

Service was perfect. Food was fast.
First impressions:

  • The sandwiches were not pressed to a flat hell, a feat of panini-making not to be taken lightly
  • The soup was gorgeous. Like, magazine-ready gorgeous
  • The chips looked store-bought
  • The salad was in an oddly small bowl, but was a really decent sized portion

The Cubano was a delicate balance of flavors with excellently cooked pork, and the pickles didn't overtake everything. The only complaint is that the housemade mustard vanished a bit in the mix. It needs to be pumped up. I like my Cubano with a little kick.

Our second sandwich, the Dutch chicken, was such a weird and wonderful combination of flavors I feel like you'd have to taste it to understand. A lime/serrano marinated chicken with havarti, arugula and apple butter! It was sweet and fresh and satisfyingly easy to eat.

French onion soup is hard to mess up. It's broth with bread and cheese. Menke's version is rich in flavor and the bread was soft but not soggy, topped with a thick layer of gooey cheese. It was just what I needed this week as winter reasserted itself.

The big, giant, looming issue with The Root Cellar isn't the food or drink, though—it's execution and lack of awareness. Both issues seem to be endemic to that space since this is, after all, the same spot in which bars like Rouge Cat and Blue Rooster both recently failed.

This space is awkward. Really awkward. You enter into a honey/candle store and then have to make your way down a staircase. There are attempts to make sense of the set-up by calling the restaurant a "speakeasy," but it still feels odd. This isn't 2004, and unless there are secret codes and moonshine...

The spaces simply aren't connected aesthetically, and the downstairs isn't quite hidden enough for this disconnect to work. This is a travesty, because once you're there it's a great little bar. High booths and dark wood make it all feel like it's been there decades, and I was instantly reminded of the sadly renovated Hotel St. Francis bar (known now as Secreto) and found myself nostalgic for that type of downtown haunt.

But awkwardness can be overcome. No one knowing you exist, however, is a more serious hurdle. I made a reservation since it was Valentine's Day, but I was shocked when my date and I arrived to a ghost town. In 90 minutes, only three other tables sat down, leaving me horrified for the one waiter and cook working.

We do think The Root Cellar could be a great post-work hangout or regular bar to grab drinks. There's a TV on one wall, and a mix of '80s and '90s hits played that would have been perfect if the place was even half-filled. In its empty state, though, it felt a bit sad. On our way back to the car we passed by the recently relocated gelato and coffee spot Ecco (128 E Marcy St., 986-9778) which, at 8 pm on a Tuesday in winter, had more patrons.

Poet Theodore Roethke described a root cellar as being a place where nothing gives up life, where even the dirt breathes. With a few tweaks I think Menke could have something just as lively; open 4:30-9:30 pm Tuesday-Friday with an extra half hour taking them to 10 pm on Saturdays, it doesn’t feel like the night spot it could be.