Has Crossroads improved because it was aggressively criticized a couple of years back? Or has it improved because someone in house has taken it on as a labor of love? Ultimately, from a diner's point of view, who cares why it's better? It's better.
Physically, it's scarcely changed, but physically it has always been attractive, an inner room of onyx mirrors, natural wood, brown leather banquettes, and bouquets of dried flowers in gleaming copper bowls. What's different is the food.
What looked like a stodgy and conventional menu made us uneasy, at first. It listed the same dishes offered all over town: shrimp cocktail ($7.95), onion soup ($3.25), Maryland crab soup ($3.25), prime rib ($19.50), filet mignon with bearnaise ($17.95), veal tenderloin with fontina cheese ($17.50), pasta de mer ($17.50). By the time we finished our meal, however, we'd discussed the wisdom of Crossroads' strategy: Prepare conventional foods well and they're a comfort. Guests of a hotel, away from home, may appreciate finding familiar dishes on a menu with local specialties.
Because we were more inclined to try the less usual, we began with grilled mesquite sausage with brie ($6.25), escargot in baguette ($5.25) and a bowl of the soup of the day ($2.75), Southwestern vegetable. Our whims took us in the wrong direction; appetizers were the meal's least successful course. In the first, the sausage lacked the juiciness, flavor, spice and flamboyance that make sausage worth ordering, while the accompanying brie was bland and firm, not gooey and ripe, and a side sauce of apples seemed like uncooked apple pie filling.
Visually, the snails were beautiful, in a deep red wine sauce next to a buttery yellow pool of bearnaise. However, both sauces were bridged by a slice of cold, plain French bread, and the snails had lost neither their chewiness nor an oddly acid aftertaste. Snails need to be exceptionally good in a country whose citizens are rarely born with a passion for them.
A generous bowl of the good-natured soup was much better. With garbanzo beans, kidney beans, celery, potato, carrot, zucchini, onion and a spicy tomato base, it had variety, chili heat and fresh tastes (despite the chunks of canned tomato segments with their undiscarded, firm stem ends). The kidney beans were its most pronounced texture and taste, and transformed the soup into a likable showcase for the bean.
A large-sized cut of salmon ($17.95) was the seafood "catch of the day." We liked its not having been excessively fussed over, but because it was plain, it was impossible not to notice that it was overcooked and somewhat dry. Perhaps we should have foreseen the problem, and told the kitchen we wanted our fish underdone. I've heard it argued that's how to achieve perfectly cooked fish in a restaurant.
On the other hand, we wholeheartedly admired two large Maryland crab cakes ($16.95, which is very reasonable for crab these days). They were lump crab, fresh, simple, not heavily spiced, and only lightly herbed, in a butter sauce dotted with small squares of fresh tomato.
Steak Anderson ($18.95) was a New York sirloin strip, served not as a single chunk of meat, but as 2-inch by 4-inch islands, topped with excellent lump crab and thin-sliced mushrooms. What made it a particularly satisfying example of its kind was the high quality of the meat, and the lightness of the bearnaise saucing.
All three of our plates included a dense, dull, either old or partially microwaved steamed potato, but also fresh, sparely oiled batons of carrot, an unsophisticated onion-and-egg potato pancake, and fresh asparagus.
Desserts ascended from pleasant to stellar. Pleasant: a slice of chocolate cake ($3), moistened with sugar syrup, frosted with both dark and cocoa icings, topped by a chocolate truffle, and frothed with a deep scoop of whipped cream. Stellar: a caramel apple flan ($3.50) made of just-cooked fresh apples, an ethereally delicate puff paste, an apple and caramel sauce, and real whipped cream.
A glorious frozen raspberry souffle ($4) matched it -- a confection of egg whites, whipped cream and raspberries. I couldn't stop nibbling it, though it rose high above its white dish, and could have served three.
Finally, we liked Crossroads' handling of our credit card slip, which -- rare day! -- showed both the cost of the dinner, and below that, separately, the tax. Few restaurants are so considerate, possibly wanting patrons to calculate the tip from the sum of the two.
P.S.: Four weeks ago, in my review of Capriccio, I wrote that the house bread "tasted like a product of Maranto's." My sincere apologies to Maranto's. The bread was not theirs; I regret having referred to them. *
Next: China Chefs
Crossroads, Cross Keys Inn, 5100 Falls Road, 532-6900
Hours: Lunch Mondays to Fridays, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner Mondays to Thursdays, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays until 10:30 p.m.; Sunday brunch 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Accepts: American Express, Visa, Master Card,Diners Club
Features: Regional American cuisine