Not Good Vegan Food, Just Good Food | The Jewish Week | Food & Wine

Not Good Vegan Food, Just Good Food

Not Good Vegan Food, Just Good Food

This dish combines the pleasure of popcorn with the nutritional value of chickpeas. Lauren Rothman/JW

Ronnen eschews fancy tricks in his Los Angeles restaurant, so you can do the same at home.

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Leafing through Tal Ronnen’s new cookbook “Crossroads,” named for the chef’s popular Los Angeles restaurant, you might experience one of the following reactions. Perhaps you’ll dog-ear ten or 20 pages, your mind racing with all the ideas you want to translate to the plate. Maybe you’ll run to your pantry to inspect your stocks of the classic Mediterranean ingredients — za’atar, pistachios, pomegranate molasses — the book’s recipes call for. Likely you’ll salivate over Crossroads’ gorgeous, full-page color photos of salads, spreads, soups, desserts, cocktails and more. Probably, though, you’ll wonder what unites all of these inviting-looking dishes.

The subtitle of the book, released earlier this month by Artisan, provides a gentle cue: Extraordinary Recipes from the Restaurant That Is Reinventing Vegan Cuisine. That’s right: these flatbreads, pastas, cakes and tortes omit meat, milk, cream, cheese, eggs and even honey. The point, according to Israeli-born Ronnen, is that you might not even notice. At his swanky West Hollywood restaurant, which he runs alongside executive chef Scot Jones and pastry chef Serafina Magnussen, diners enjoy fried “calamari” (made of rings of hearts of palm); “oysters” (constructed out of artichoke puree); and pappardelle “Bolognese” prepared with Italian-style vegan sausage, the sole meat substitute used on Crossroads’ menu.

“There are no obvious vegan cues, and most guests don’t even make the connection that the menu is plant-based,” Ronnen writes in the book’s preface. Opened in 2013, it’s not just Crossroads’ menu that sets it apart from L.A.’s usual patchouli-scented breed of vegan eateries, but also its atmosphere: an upscale dining room featuring deep leather banquettes and ultramodern chandeliers, the restaurant is a dining experience first and a vegan dining experience second.

“Crossroads has a convivial energy and serves the wonderful food that one would expect from an upscale restaurant,” Ronnen, who was born on a moshav outside Jerusalem and whose Israeli heritage continues to inspire his cooking, writes. “The only difference being that no animal products are used to prepare it.”

A thorough reading of Ronnen’s cookbook provides assurance that the home cook certainly won’t miss the meat — much less the milk — in any of Crossroads’ full-flavored dishes. Relying on the bold tastes found in ingredients such as harissa, olives, fava beans and pistachios, Ronnen creates a tempting menu of mix-and-matchable Mediterranean mezzes, salads, pastas, desserts and more. Written in an approachable voice and, with a few exceptions, favoring straightforward techniques over cheffy tricks, the cookbook’s recipes would appeal to any type of diner, vegan or not. And because they contain no animal products, they’re a neutral addition to any meat or dairy meal.

Crossroads’ signature — and its top-selling — dish is the aforementioned “artichoke oysters,” dollops of pureed artichokes that are served on an artichoke leaf (the “shell”), topped with a fried oyster mushroom (the “oyster”) and drizzled with bearnaise sauce, a traditional accompaniment to fried oysters. A visual trick similar to the restaurant’s batter-fried hearts of palm with aioli that mimic calamari, these clever dishes are nonetheless exceptions to Crossroads’ style. Unlike mock-meat tofu or seitan (soy products the restaurant does not employ since the plant is not grown in the Mediterranean region), for the most part, with Crossroads’ food what you see is what you get. That means the sumptuous, layered flavors of homemade flatbreads topped with butternut squash, mustard greens and fried Brussels sprouts; a summery peach salad deepened with umami-rich balsamic-glazed cipollini onions; mini kale spanikopitas dipped into spicy harissa sauce and dotted with bright mint oil; and much, much more. And then there are the desserts: rich confections including spice cake parfaits with roasted pumpkin mousse and whipped coconut cream, and a positively decadent chocolate layer cake with hazelnut syrup, fig jam and creamy chocolate-fig frosting. It’s hard to imagine any omnivore turning down this fare.

As Ronnen explains in Crossroads’ intro, the dishes inside are meant to be mixed and matched; featuring complimentary flavor profiles, they all pretty much go together. One of the book’s small plate recipes, Spiced Chickpeas, is a perfect example of the approachability, and versatility of Ronnen’s recipes. First, cooked chickpeas are tossed with oil, salt, and plenty of vibrant spices—think cumin, red pepper flakes and cayenne—then roasted to a crispy, crunchy, addictively popcorn-like snack. You can save the chickpeas as-is for daylong snacking, or take the recipe to its conclusion by braising the legumes in a simple sherry-fortified tomato sauce and serving them over rice with one of the cookbook’s excellent flatbreads. On the night I prepared them, I incorporated them seamlessly into an Indian-themed meal, plating them up with fluffy basmati rice, mustard seed-flecked potatoes and a cooling cucumber raita.

Yes, I made — and served — dairy. Don’t tell chef Ronnen.

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