This summer, it's all about lunches. Through September, Weekender's twice-monthly restaurant reviews will focus on places that serve the midday meal. We start with a gem on Southland Drive.
Stopping mid-conversation, I listen to the sounds of a trundling train passing by; it is as much music to my ears as any playlist a restaurant can conjure up. This not-so-white noise, simultaneously melancholy and energizing, makes me glad that The Crossroad on Southland keeps other lunchtime volume down. Add great service and delicious food at reasonable prices, and my feeling was, "I want to come back tomorrow." Which I did.
The Crossroad is a clean and unpretentious makeover of the former Trumps bar and grill. This transformation includes the greater curb appeal of a fresh façade, spruced-up stonework and young trees. The evolution continues indoors, as an equally simple but slightly stiff design is being reconsidered, and the venue refines the roles of karaoke and live music in the scheme of things.
Meanwhile, the kitchen, too, is further developing its own interpretation of "New South cuisine," a slippery term that fuses straightforward tradition, such as barbecue, with upscale technique borrowed from classic cuisine, say, luscious butter beans in a cream sauce subtly infused with thyme.
Among my favorite standards are the small corn muffins, slightly crunchy outside, hot and moistly crumbly inside, corn-studded and thankfully not too sweet. Peach butter is sometimes available. There are sides of leathery collards (eat them with your fingers; the large pieces are tough to cut) and soupy mac 'n' cheese made with, of all things, real cheese. Cannellini beans in a spicy tomato-based sauce loaded with Andouille sausage smother — in the nicest possible way — a mound of soft white rice.
At lunch, the melt-in-your-mouth pulled-pork sandwich (no dry shards anywhere) with a generous helping of savory fries is a ridiculous steal at $3.95. You might think it can get no better until you amend it with North Carolina barbecue sauce — imagine vinegary sweet mustard punched up with chili. To mix things up, order a side of sliced cucumbers and skinny red onions, marinated in dill and vinaigrette; they add a nice crunch and contrasting coolness.
Although not on the menu, a mere inquiry about onion rings will result in a mountain of them, only $1.75, showing up on your plate.
I never associate "Southern food" with a vegetable plate of brilliant colors, but that's outdated thinking. In our "New South," the palette is bright and beautiful.
The enormous "vegetarian bliss" entree includes fresh-roasted deep-magenta beets, steamed spinach like leafy emeralds, and perfectly crunchy pencils of asparagus sprinkled with sesame seeds. Sauces might have a squirt of lemon juice or be just a light coating of nutty brown butter. The gigante (butter) beans I mentioned earlier add soft texture and richness, and finally, there is a healthy disc of chevre, pan sautéed with a pecan crust delicate enough to line a tart pan.
Which brings me to dessert.
At this juncture, the only dessert made completely in-house is bananas Foster. Bourbon instead of rum is the spirit of choice, Kentucky-izing the caramel sauce, a decadent stream that fills a waffle's nooks and crannies and naps the bananas, which, not so incidentally, are at their peak, neither nearly green nor overripe. Tradition requires a scoop of ice cream, in this case, butter pecan. Be sure you have dining companions, because you won't make a dent in it by yourself.
It would be easy to overlook The Crossroad on Southland, so insignificant is the marquee outside. You might glance over, and then drive by without stopping.
But that would be a big mistake.
Only the lonely train, making its way to its destination, should do that.