And although I'd eaten lunch and dinner at The Crossing several times since that first review, the question gnawed at me: Are these guys really as good as I've been telling people?
Judging from two "on-duty" return trips, absolutely -- maybe even better.
To reset the stage, "these guys" are Jim Fiala and Cary McDowell -- Fiala a native St. Louisan -- who met at Daniel, now the flagship and the most upscale of a three-restaurant Boulud empire in New York City. Fiala also worked at Spiaggia in Chicago and McDowell for the former head chef of another New York legend, Lutèce. That combined experience led them to develop a contemporary American menu based on a "crossing" of French and Italian influences -- a style that the restaurant's menu claims comes from "home cooking," which I take to be more of a metaphor for simplicity than for any illusion that everyday French and Italians regularly dine at home on elaborate beet-and-goat-cheese salads, foie gras and sweetbreads in Banyuls sauce.
One major discovery of this round of visits was one of the best pamper-yourself splurge values around: the $50 "tasting menu," comprising three starter courses, two entrées and dessert, all chef-chosen but with substitutions possible, and with a requirement that the entire table order the sampler. To really put the restaurant to the test, we challenged the wine manager, Tim Bishop, to create a tasting menu to complement each course.
First up was a chilled avocado-and-green-chile soup, whose smooth green surface was dotted near the edges with tiny slicks of olive oil and mounded in the center with a miniature pillow of lump crabmeat, with slivers of darker green marking the presence of relatively mild chiles. A subtle curry flavor provided a long finish to the dish, and Bishop paired it with Sokol Blosser Winery's Evolution No. 9, an unusual Oregon white meritage whose flowery nose and off-dry flavor were bold enough to match the pronounced and equally complex flavors of the soup.
This was followed by what has become, for better or for worse, The Crossing's signature dish, the roasted-beet salad, a mixture of roasted, cubed beets and creamy goat cheese flavored with Jerez sherry vinegar, accented with pine nuts and served under fresh field greens with dots of beet purée and pesto surrounding it. It's a "for better" dish because, in no uncertain terms, this is the highest calling to which a beet can aspire; it's "for worse" because McDowell's and Fiala's talents are diminished when the chefs are identified so closely with what's basically a supporting dish when, in fact, they're wizards all across the menu. The wine for this course was a 1999 Rapet Père et Fils Aligoté white burgundy -- light, crisp and fairly simple but not at all in conflict with the sherry vinegar in the salad.
Next up was a disarmingly simple pasta course, long and flat fresh tagliatelle dressed only in butter and a very light dusting of Parmesan, mixed with sautéed chanterelle mushrooms, cooked ever so lightly as to retain a springy texture and with a color that matched their description as "golden." With such a simple food base, Bishop was free to pick a slightly more complicated wine and went with a 1999 Landmark Overlook chardonnay, combining a range of fruit and spice flavors with a nose that started out as toasted oak and ended up closer to spruce, although there certainly were no resiny flavors to match that scent.
The first main course was tilapia, a primarily farm-raised, mild-flavored fish that has infested local menus in bland, un-thoughtful executions. Here, though, it bordered on daring, especially given a last-minute substitution of the port-wine reduction usually served with a tuna dish for the menu listing of a wild-mushroom beurre blanc. As a steam or a sautée, I think, the fish would have been overwhelmed by the rich wine sauce, but in this preparation, the outer layer had been seared to a fine crispness, concentrating the flavor at the edges, with the pieces of fish served over steaming spinach. Perhaps also because of the full-bodied sauce, Bishop chose a 1998 Marc Colin St. Aubin Premier Cru, a medium-bodied, elegant red with hints of cherry and nuts.
Finally came an off-menu nightly special: roasted loin of lamb served in a natural jus with potatoes and thinly sliced tips and stalk pieces of lightly cooked asparagus. Cut into eighth-inch-thick slices, the meat had a firmer texture than beef and a rosy interior, with the silky translucent juices providing the main additional flavoring. The final wine -- we thought -- was a 1998 Beaulieu Vineyards cabernet: It was dark, full-bodied enough to stand up to lamb, not overly tannic and probably a tad young, but it's rare to find even moderately aged California reds on a restaurant wine list.
Had the meal concluded with the chosen dessert of another of the signature dishes, a lemon-ginger crème brûlée, it would have been merely outstanding; as it turned out, through some gift from the gods, Bishop had snagged us a small glass of what's generally considered the finest dessert wine in the world, Chateau D'Yquem, from its 1990 vintage. After an initial sip, we saved it for well after the gentle citrus and spicy overtones of the custard had slipped away, making it our second dessert, a remarkably powerful yet delicate concentration of honey and apricots.
Our other meal, ordered à la carte, didn't quite reach the sublime experience of the tasting menu, but it did serve to confirm The Crossing's stature among the very best restaurants in the Midwest. The soup of the day was gazpacho, in a style favoring smoothness over chunkiness, flavored with the same lump-crab approach we later saw in the avocado soup.
The other first course that evening was a salad that will forever change any ingrained aversions you may have developed toward anchovies. These "fresh" Italian anchovies, although relatively small, were bigger than you might expect; moist, plump and slightly larger than canned sardines; and basically devoid of saltiness. Their mildness was complemented by the bite of arugula and the rich, concentrated flavor of roasted red and yellow peppers. "Fresh," by the way, isn't entirely true -- Fiala buys the anchovies cured in white wine, wine vinegar and olive oil -- but the inaccuracy serves to emphasize the fact that there is virtually no relation between these and the salt-cured-to-the-point-of-immortality common canned variety.
Entrees for this meal were a fairly simple beef tenderloin, covered first with a liberal dollop of Maytag blue cheese and then topped off with a jaunty beret of a portobello-mushroom cap; and another port-and-red-wine reduction, this one topping off pan-seared tuna sliced into rectangles and triangles that resembled a stack of children's building blocks, exposing the medium-rare, translucent maroon color of the interior.
For dessert, a lemon semifreddo was somewhere between a chilled soufflé and a light-bodied custard. The dessert -- which resembled a tiny trash can overflowing with yellow confetti -- yielded a concentrated sweetened-lemon flavor that was balanced by the slight bitterness of the rind.
From reservation to exit, service was excellent. The Crossing asks for a phone number when reservations are taken and calls to confirm. Because the restaurant contains only about 20 tables, you can see the wisdom of this approach, although on one occasion when we were unreachable and didn't call back, our reservation was still in place.
Three years is actually a fairly long period in the restaurant world, and although some subtle evolution was apparent to us, McDowell and Fiala have rightly avoided the urge to reinvent themselves merely for change's sake. The wine list was expanded to number in excess of 150 bottles, including about 16 halves and about a dozen magnums, and the addition was enough to capture a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence. The cream, blue and brick walls and original artwork looked just as fresh as they did on our original visit, and all meals still start with a fittingly smile-inducing amuse-bouche of blue-cheese soufflé.
The Crossing has successfully made the jump from outstanding new kid on the block to polished long-term player.