Oprah Called Tal Ronnen America’s Best Vegan Chef; Here’s What to Eat at His Restaurant
Vegan egg yolk, crab cakes made from hearts of palm, artichoke oysters are stand-outs on the menu at Crossroads in West Hollywood.
Tal Ronnen is the best vegan chef in America, but we didn’t say it. Oprah did. He helped her prep for her 21-day vegan challenge, when she also gave up sugar, gluten and alcohol. He’s also catered the wedding of Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi, and cooked on DeGeneres’ show.
“It is definitely a lot of pressure when cooking for someone you respect and who has done so much for you,” Ronnen says. “Eventually you learn they are people, just like your other guests, and enjoy good meals, and that’s the bottom line.”
When he’s not consulting for celebs, you can find him behind the stoves at his L.A. plant-based restaurant, Crossroads. When it opened in 2013, it was one of the first elevated, chef-driven restaurants not to serve meat.
We visited recently to try his fall menu. Leave the street side bustle of West Hollywood and inside, it’s dim. Fancy restaurant dim. The space feels more like a New York steakhouse than an L.A. restaurant. And there’s nothing about the decor that would make you think “plant-based”—the room isn’t light-filled, or bright with blond wood and Scandinavian tables, as so many restaurants in this city are. There are no succulents, no live plant walls. It’s an intentional move in the other direction. (The only person wearing sandals is under the age of two.)
About 60% of his diners aren’t vegan or even vegetarian, Ronnen estimates, so he tries to create dishes that are familiar—not in a kitschy, derivative sort of way, but in a way that’s universal. There are crab cakes made from hearts of palm, hot and crisp on the outside and flaky within. Hearts of palm offer a sweet, toothsome shred very similar to crab. The ocean note is, of course, less strong, but it’s satisfying. There are also artichoke oysters that are akin to nothing, despite their name; buttery artichoke purée is piped on an artichoke leaf and topped with an oyster mushroom breaded ever so reverently. Atop, there’s kelp caviar: at a glance, you would have no reason to doubt it came from a sturgeon. The whole thing is spooned with béarnaise, which, in the French canon, is a yolky sauce similar to hollandaise. Here however, it’s made from yellow tomato, and it’s what Ronnen uses for the yolk in his pasta carbonara.
Nailing down that texture was a real challenge. “I asked our friend Michael Voltaggio for his help on that one,” he says. Voltaggio, another L.A. chef, was chef de cuisine for José Andrés before winning Bravo’s Top Chef and starting his own restaurant, Ink., which GQ named Best New Restaurant in 2012.
Voltaggio and Ronnen knew each other well from cooking together at Coachella, and together they came up with a yellow tomato emulsion set with sodium alginate, which preserved the shape.
When the carbonara is placed before us, the yolk is delicately cradled in a bed of fettuccine.
Poke it with your knife, and the yolk resists ever so slightly, just how you’d expect. But poke a little harder, and it bursts and flows unctuously, coating the pasta. Take a bite, and it’s sweet, just like a yolk, although without the faint metallic note. It’s less rich of course, but the mouthfeel is remarkably similar.
Do you feel uncomfortable looking at these pictures in public yet? (We do, too.) A breath of eggy flavor, ever so delicate, is imparted in the yolk by Himalayan black salt. It has sulfur, which doesn’t sound very appetizing, but it is used to great effect. The simplicity of the final result belies the weeks of tinkering it took to create it.
There are vegetable-forward plates as well: a salad with baby beets and walnuts and nubs of goat cheese, except it’s not goat cheese, of course, it’s Kite Hill almond cheese, a company that Ronnen helped start. It’s creamy with a hint of tang. There are also plates of grilled maitake mushrooms, and sweet potato and chanterelles with pomegranate glaze, which are meant to be paired with full bodied reds carefully recommended. Like any good restaurant at this price point, the wine program has been given much thought. Hand-cut agnolotti is a given.
One day, Tal Ronnen’s Crossroads won’t be called a plant-based restaurant. It will be called, simply, a restaurant. And we eagerly anticipate that day.