Crossroads Diner: Tell Willie Brown to Come Running for Lunch
Crossroads Diner is located just off the corner of Walnut Hill Road and Central Expressway, which, in the world's compendium of crossroads, is a pretty prosaic intersection. People come here to catch the train, not negotiate with Satan.
But the new restaurant's name isn't just a geographic reference: Chef-owner Tom Fleming, whose lengthy resume includes Old Hickory, Pappas Bros. and Central 214, could have gone right on fussing with Kobe steaks and lobsters. He could have bided the years before retirement in glitzy kitchens, garnishing poached peahen eggs with white truffles for exacting guests who didn't dine until the stylish hour of 9 p.m.—long after his children had eaten, done their homework and gone to bed. But the prospect of missing out on parental chores didn't appeal to Fleming, so he veered left, striding down a path paved with smoked turkey frittatas and cinnamon sticky buns.
Crossroads Diner is what happens when a chef grows tired of fancy food and fancy people. Fleming isn't the first kitchen talent bent on reclaiming coffee-shop classics from value-driven chain restaurants: Almost every significant American city has a restaurant run by a white-tablecloth veteran who discovers that the way to challenge his short-order chops, return to his roots, celebrate local products, cook honest food or reconnect with his family involves bacon and eggs. Fortunately, many of these restaurants—Crossroads Diner included—are pretty good.
Crossroads Diner is the sort of restaurant most anyone would be glad to have in the neighborhood. It's the ultimate office amenity: HR departments may twaddle on about company gyms and parking passes, but what workers really want is a nearby eatery where they can get a decent tuna fish sandwich at a reasonable price. And if the restaurant's so spacious that a crew of nine colleagues can show up unannounced and score a table without trouble—as is the case at the mostly décor-less, but pleasantly naturally lighted Crossroads Diner—that's even better. I'm too skeezed out by hospitals to check, but I'm guessing the break rooms in the medical buildings that surround Crossroads Diner aren't as lively as they were back before Fleming's $6.25 BLT was a practical alternative to packing a lunch.
Folks who live or work near Crossroads Diner have been flocking to the restaurant, and nothing I say could or should stop them. If Crossroads Diner were on my block, I wouldn't have just microwaved macaroni and cheese for lunch. But for those who can't give the daytime spot any points for convenience, a few food and service issues grate.
There are two soups on Crossroad Diner's lunch menu of salads, sandwiches and hot entrées. The one that never changes is a New England clam chowder, surprisingly spry for a cream-based soup. Perhaps one stroke of the pepper grinder away from being perfectly seasoned, the tangy soup's a bright, maritime charmer, seeded with patches of smoky bacon and diced celery. The potatoes are tender, and the clams are appropriately salty and meaty, sporting just a touch of reassuring grit. It's a terrific soup.
Crossroads Diner excels at dishes like the clam chowder, which can be made ahead of time or invested with the forethought that's a hallmark of serious dining. But Crossroads disappoints on the fly; the kitchen too often seems to balk when called upon to flex its grill skills. The cooks here may have flipped tens of thousands of eggs, but the cooks at Waffle House have flipped hundreds of thousands. And the difference shows. I didn't once have an egg dish at Crossroads Diner that a self-respecting grill guy at a greasy spoon would have served.
Eggs aren't easy. A bit of culinary folklore holds the folds in a chef's toque denote how many ways he knows how to prepare an egg; it's a safe bet there's nothing piddly about any achievement that's worth enshrining in a hat. In his classic New Yorker piece about Las Vegas' egg cooks, Burkhard Bilger spoke to a Flamingo Hotel employee who confided: "Egg cooks are worth their weight in gold in this town." A neuroscientist told him the best egg cooks' brains had sprouted dedicated circuits that told them exactly when to flip and plate.
So maybe it's unfair to expect Crossroads Diner to churn out eggs with the confidence of cooks who cater to 3,000 gamblers every morning, or the panache of Waffle House cooks who've mastered their art under the scrutiny of rowdy drunks and cursing truckers. But when eggs figure into so many breakfast dishes that the menu's short cereal section is found under the heading "Other Than Eggs," it's a letdown when the eggs are so consistently wayward.
An over-easy egg was rubbery, its white and yolk indistinct on the tongue. A gloopy frittata, featuring roasted red peppers and nubbins of sassy chorizo, was overwhelmed by pools of goat cheese and undercooked egg.
And eggs weren't the only diner standard that seemed to stymie the cooks at Crossroads: Hash browns were overdone, pressed into a tidy, crisp latke. Pancakes were flat and slightly tough, as though they were short on baking powder and long on mixing.
The servers could also stand a few lessons from their compatriots at all-night diners. While generally friendly, they forgot and flubbed orders with astounding frequency. I was served a plate of hash with eggs scrambled instead of over-easy, and a BLT when I asked for an egg salad sandwich.
But Crossroads does plenty that Waffle House can't do. The restaurant's done a brilliant job sourcing its ingredients: The cheese is local, the vegetables are fresh and the sandwich bread comes from Empire Baking Co. Even though I didn't love that egg salad sandwich—the soft, lemony salad would have benefited from the contrasting texture of a lettuce leaf or bacon strip—I was smitten with the multigrain bread on which it sat. The grilled bun supporting a well-charred burger was equally good. Both sandwiches were served with undulating, bronzed potato chips, made in-house (like most everything else on the menu) and accompanied by a sour cream dip doctored with scallion and paprika.
Crossroads Diner makes a very big deal about its sticky bun, which servers hawk enthusiastically no matter the hour. The sturdy bun bears little resemblance to the cinnamon rolls sold in shopping mall food courts: It's closer to a gingerbread cake, minimally glazed and heaped with chopped pecans. That's the ticket for sugar fans, but eaters equipped with a savory tooth should beeline for the corned beef hash.
Frankly, the corned beef's far better than hash—recently declared an "it dish" by The New York Times—requires. In an ideal hash, the various elements meld seamlessly. Here, though, the confetti of fresh, peony-pink corned beef stands out from the potatoes and slips of sautéed onions.
Laws of hash notwithstanding, the corned beef, ringed with salt, is stunning. If the devil ever does arrive at Crossroads, he won't have much leverage: Fleming already knows the secrets of brine-curing. And that's something no roadside greasy spoon can match.
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