Behind enemy lines at the new Crossroads restaurant on Melrose, this devout meat-eater and vegan virgin is faced with a challenge: can I survive an upscale, multi-course vegan meal or maybe even enjoy it?
Why haven’t you tried vegan before, you ask? Aren’t you a restaurant critic and a “foodie”? In my defense, I have never considered vegan a cuisine. I’ve considered it a diet at best, or at my most cynical, a means for the high-maintenance diner among us to receive the deference they crave. So, I’ve avoided it admirably. That was, until my editor suggested I check out Crossroads on Melrose and Sweetzer avenues.
“I will never forgive you for this assignment,” I informed him crisply.
The night before my Saturday night reservation, I actually had a nightmare.
“Silly,” I chided my bleary-eyed reflection in the bathroom mirror as I splashed cold water on my face. “They’re just vegetables … lots and lots of vegetables. How bad could they be?”
Flashback to childhood: I’m not allowed to leave the table without eating my veggies. Even my dog won’t touch the once-canned, water-logged “morsels” proffered slyly from under my chair. So into my jeans pockets they go until I’m excused from the table with squishy pants.
But I’m all grown up now, and I know there’s no Jolly Green Giant haunting the kitchen of Crossroads – far from it. Arguably the most celebrated vegan chef in the country, Tal Ronnen, who has cooked for the likes of Oprah, the U.S. Senate and Ellen DeGeneres, is at the helm of this place: the first upscale, “plant-based” dining experience in the West Hollywood area.
“You’re in good hands,” I console myself. I cross the threshold into the restaurant in a cold sweat. As I do, two things strike me: first, the place is packed, and second, the dining room is unexpectedly stunning.
This is no patchouli-scented Haight-Ashbury café with creaky floorboards underfoot and a cold case full of tofurkey sliders humming in the corner. No, I’m standing beneath rows of industrial chandeliers with exposed wires that throw soft light upon cream-colored walls, warm wood and glass.
I’m shown to my table and I peruse the drink menu. Yes, there is a full bar. This I knew, but I didn’t expect the drinks to be so creative and delicious. Created by mixologist Gaston Martinez and executed by Jeremy Lake (former bar director of Rivera and Playa), the Crossroads “farm-to-bar” cocktail concept blends herbaceous, sweet and savory notes into potable works of art.
All drinks run about $15. The “Sunset and Vine” is made with Milagro reposado, Solerno, Lillet Rouge, St. Germaine, rhubarb bitters, blood orange, beet, basil and ginger beer. Another favorite was the “Caprese Smash” made with ORO pisco, rhubarb liqueur, Sriracha bitters, balsamic reduction, raspberry, cipollini onion, basil and Roma tomato.
Impressed and pliant from the tasty drinks, I dig into the first of the small plates with little hesitation. The Lentil Flatbread with Three Seasonal Spreads ($5) tonight features smoked white bean hummus, leek pate and tomato basil banana pepper fondue. The lentil bread tastes slightly wooden, but the three sauces are distinctive and flavorful.
Next to arrive is the Kale Spanakopita ($8) with harissa-spiced smoked tomato fondue and mint oil. My eyes widen in surprise and delight. They are crisp, hot and delicious. The ramekin of tomato dip is wiped clean by the last bite.
The Risotto Stuffed Banana Pepper ($8) comes with a basil and lime beurre blanc. I have no idea what the “beurre” is made out of, but whatever it is, it’s working. The pepper is mild, the risotto creamy and the citrus note in the blanket of silky sauce throws the whole thing into high gear.
All of a sudden, I’m having fun. Some of the more substantial dishes arrive and I wonder if the momentum can possibly continue with the entrees. It does.
The Wood-Fired Meaty Lasagna ($14) is made from house-made noodles, tofu ricotta, soy mozzarella, marinara sauce and homemade gardein, which I learned is some kind of protein substitute that can be made from a variety of plant-based foods, none of which my server was at liberty to elaborate on. Yes, it sounds horrific, but this imposter was indistinguishable from the gloppy variety of real lasagna.
My favorite dish though may have been the Biscuits and Morel Mushroom Gravy ($14). How one can make a biscuit without eggs is fascinating, but above that, the creamy gravy was a great stage to showcase the prized morel mushroom in all its glory at the height of its season.
I left Crossroads a changed man. I am still amazed by Chef Ronnan’s skill and intelligence in manipulating things that sprout from the earth into delicate and edible expressions of creativity.
Will I be giving up meat? Not on your life, but for vegans and the curious alike, Crossroads delivers more than unique and memorable food and drink; it may just bring you enlightenment.
8284 Melrose Ave. at Sweetzer, Los Angeles