"Wanna go to a fancy vegan restaurant with me tonight?" I asked my friend, only to watch as a pained expression flickered across her face. The wheels in her head were visibly turning: Ugh, vegan ... what can my excuse be? Think quick!
I should have tried a completely different plan of attack. "Wanna go to this trendy new restaurant with me?" would have sufficed. It also would have been interesting to see how long it would take, once we were there, for her to realize that Crossroads is a vegan restaurant. Under the right circumstances, with the right number of cocktails, it's possible she never would have made the connection.
That's because Crossroads is trying very hard to redefine the concept of vegan dining, to take it away from the hippie, health-food crowd and deliver an upscale hot spot that fits right into its Melrose Avenue location. In fact, if you look at the restaurant's website, the word "vegan" never appears. Rather, the place bills itself as Mediterranean, small-plates, fine dining. Look closely and you'll see "plant-based" tucked in among other descriptors, but that's the only hint that there's no meat or dairy anywhere on the menu.
Yet Crossroads must feel like a godsend to certain vegans, the ones who miss the glitz and fun of high-end dining. Dark and chic, lit by stylish, light-orb chandeliers, the room is packed with gorgeous, malnourished Hollywood types. Lipstick-red, clubby, semi-circular booths line the outside wall, while a long bar takes up the inner one.
That bar is no joke: The cocktails are $15 each and just as fussed over and coddled as any other $15 cocktails in town. The wine list is incredibly well-chosen, with a few high-priced, flashy bottles and a lot of lesser-known counterparts selected for their food-friendly qualities. When you're seated at your table, a waiter swooshes in and presents you with a half-glass of sparkling wine.
Crossroads is headed by Tal Ronnen, a chef/cookbook author best known for catering Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi's wedding. Hospitality veterans Parnell and Jennifer Delcham are partners in the project, and Scott Jones, who worked with Ronnen at a Chrissie Hynde–owned vegan restaurant in Ohio, is executive chef.
In the past, Ronnen has expressed frustration at vegan food that hews too close to its hippie origins, or food that’s basically what would come on the side of a regular carnivore’s meal. In his cookbook and at Crossroads, Ronnen is trying to create food that feel whole, a refined meal unto itself rather than health food or a collection of sides.
So the menu reads like any small-plates menu, albeit a very reasonably priced small-plates menu: One of the advantages of vegetables is that they're comparatively cheap. There are soups, salads and hot and cold small plates. Upon perusing it, perhaps you'd notice that none of these dishes features meat. Or perhaps you'd simply be drawn in by the allure of an artichoke and farro salad with arugula and Kalamata olives, or spiced chickpeas with oven-dried tomatoes and parsley-garlic whip.
Where Ronnen succeeds the most, at least to this omnivore's tastes, is when he focuses on the inherent deliciousness of vegetables and grains and presents them in creative combinations. A recent special of okra with Calabrese peppers, Marcona almonds and pickled ramps was as creative and rewarding as any vegetable dish I've had all year: the okra cut lengthwise, semi-dried and crisped so all that the only thing remaining was the pure, toasty green flavor, with peppers adding sweetness and the ramps and sherry vinegar dressing lending just the right amount of tang.
There are dishes that showcase a huge amount of whimsy and creativity, such as "artichoke oysters," which are oyster mushrooms fried up and presented on artichoke leaves, topped with caviar made from kelp. The presentation is fun, and the seaweed component brings a whisper of the ocean to the dish. But mainly it's just an incredibly satisfying, savory bite of food. The same dynamic exists with the "crabcakes," which are made mainly from hearts of palm. The texture and appearance strongly evokes a crabcake, but the flavor is entirely its own and fantastic in its own right. The hearts of palm mixed with apples and beets have a mellow sweetness, perked up by horseradish cream.
Sometimes this switcharoo doesn't fare so well. Cassoulet, made with lentils, mushrooms, English peas and carrots, tasted more like veggie mush than the hearty stew it's meant to imitate. There's a cheese plate made from nut-milk cheeses, which Ronnen is producing under the Kite Hill label. He's aging some of the cheeses in an attempt to create Camembert-like results, while others are meant to mimic fresh cheeses. They aren't bad, just kind of bland and texturally a little strange. "This is the point I would have figured out the restaurant is vegan," my friend said as she tasted the "Costanoa" cheese, a soft wobble of fennel pollen–and-paprika-dusted weirdness.
Those cheeses fare much better when added to more complex dishes — as a soft crumble in that artichoke and farro salad, for instance, or in a tortelloni with oven-dried tomatoes. In that one, the almond cheese center wasn't weird in the slightest. In fact, it was pretty damn good.
Then there are the true imposters, the category of vegan food dreaded by non-vegans: substances made to imitate meat. This is not the main focus of Crossroads; the dishes meant to resemble meat-centric favorites are listed under a separate, “comforting classics” part of the menu.
Unlike the grain and veggie plates, these dishes are specifically engineered to satisfy the cravings of people who are unable to eat "meaty lasagna," for instance, or veal scallopini. They are by far the best rendition of "plant-based" meat and cheese I've ever tasted. The scallopini, made with wheat and soy protein, has the heft and density to hold up the marsala-intense sauce, rich with morels. You could have fed me the lasagna without any indication that the meat and cheese were not what they appeared to be, and I wouldn't have known.
Would I have declared either of these dishes fantastic by regular, meat-eating restaurant standards? No. They were more like the best frozen entrees ever, like fabulous frozen food of the future. Would they be an outrageous treat for a classic-Italian-craving vegan? Absolutely.
Desserts are impressive in the same way. Hold up the chocolate bundt cake or cannoli made with almond ricotta against other vegan desserts, and these are by far the most impressive I've had. Hold up that cannoli against a classic cannoli made with real ricotta, and the Crossroads version simply can't compete. But where you'd expect something odd-tasting and offputting, I found nothing of the sort.
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In the end, my friend was glad she came. She might even return — for the wine, for the vibe and, yes, for the food. If the aim of Crossroads is to make vegan dining palatable to the rest of us, it's doing a pretty swell job. And if the aim is to give meat-free eaters something truly special to look forward to, Crossroads has hit it out of the park.
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CROSSROADS | Two stars | 8284 Melrose Ave. | (323) 782-9245 | crossroadskitchen.com | Mon.-Wed., 5 p.m.-mid.; Thurs.-Sat., 5 p.m.-1 a.m.; Sun., 5-10 p.m. | Small plates, $5-$14 | Full bar | Valet & street parking