I suppose it’s not all that surprising that the nations’ leading vegan-chique restaurant should be located in the shadow of the Hollywood hills. And even less surprising given that star chef and best-selling author of “The Conscious Cook”, Tal Ronnen’s long list of adoring A-list fans range from Oprah to Ellen to Arianna (to the Senate, no less). But all of my prior trepidation of stepping into a mortifyingly meatless environment was safely suspended – thanks to a little magic and a lot of effort from Mr. Ronnen and his team.
Before you even glance at any of the photos below, if you close your eyes and think about the expression: “vegan restaurant,” you wouldn’t be blamed for summoning up images of an unfinished, beige-on-beige room without air conditioning, barely decorated with hyper-recycled materials, reused bamboo utensils, uneven floors, threadbare, cushion-less or yoga-mat seating; a sweaty wait staff who look like they can do with a good bath, a good hour of black-head removal and a good steak; and an über-enviro-concious-Greenpeace-centric menu with frightening words like Seitan and Tofu or other ersatz protein ingredients you might never come across in the natural world. Am I close?
It just so happens that Crossroads Kitchen is just as disorienting for omnivores as it must be for vegetarians. The West Hollywood corner bistro is dark, elegant and sexy, with fine linen, glass and silver finishes you would expect from any Michelin-contender. The wait staff is gorgeous and attentive and the menu is cleverly designed to fool (or convert) the unsuspecting critter-eater. But there is a lot more to this than plant-based hocus-pocus, hanky-panky. Chef Ronnen has carefully crafted a selection of sharable plates that feel very reminiscent of traditional Mediterranean fare and (for the most part) are tough to imagine as being created without so much as a single byproduct of the animal world.
For no other reason than the plethora of appetite-competitive options, we skipped over the gazpacho’s, lentil bread, pickles, olives and pizzas and started with a vibrantly refreshing Watercress and Peach Salad made with a wonderfully tart mint vinaigrette, dotted with dark, miniature hazelnuts.
The highly beloved and enormously decorative Artichoke Oysters are every bit as wonderful as their kaleidoscopic shape. Five artichoke leaves over a bed of kosher salt yield a dollop of the vegetable’s creamy puree, that hides a surprisingly crunchy oyster mushroom and sprig of briny kelp.
The Squash Blossoms served with a scrumptious marinara are as light and crunchy as the best you’ve ever tasted, and you would never notice that the ricotta stuffing hailed from a handful of almonds.
Even more eye-nose-mouth defying are the Crab Cakes with tartar sauce that have the perfect taste, texture and flavor of your typical high-end cocktail party pass-arounds.
Not surprisingly, there is a good offering of vegetarian pastas, but for my money, the real test was something more protein-forward, such as a Scallopini Milanese. The traditionally shapeless, breaded “cutlet” arrived supporting a garnish of tomato halves and spring lettuce leaves, and for that extra touch of disorientation – a steak knife! Whatever it was I was eating (and, no, I did not ask), convincingly resembled and tasted of a delicious slither of tender veal, perfectly crumbed and shatter-crisp fried.
My dinner guest and I debated between a couple of the half-dozen desserts, and in retrospect I probably should have put my foot down for the Coconut Milk Tapioca with blueberry compote. But instead we settled on a New York style Cheesecake. The perfectly ornate presentation included a couple of figs and a heavenly morsel of pine-nut brittle. But the silver dollar sized dollop of chalky nut-cheese fluff had a little trouble standing up to its big apple namesake. I would either recommend a renaming to lower expectations, or perhaps the insertion of a distracting flavor-forward ingredient like a hazelnut or poppy seed puree…
Suffice it to say, the vegetarian yardstick has been substantially advanced, and going forward I might just possibly consider redefining myself as a flexitarian.