Cross Keys Inn

Comfort Is Key

Cross Keys Inn
599 Dorseyville Road, Indiana Township

Tues.-Thurs. 5:30-9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. until 10 p.m.; Appetizers: $7-$15; Soup and Salads: $5-$14; Pasta (half, full portions): $6-$16; Entrees: $18-$29; Light Fare and Burgers: $7-$14; Desserts: $5; Full bar, major credit cards, free parking, reservations strongly recommended, nonsmoking.

Meet brothers and partners Robert and Michael Uricchio, if you haven’t met them before. The former proprietors of what was the very swank, very French Laforêt in Highland Park have emerged from retirement for the love of a place they had admired for years – Indiana Township’s Cross Keys Inn.

Rescued by the duo, this historic stagecoach stop was in desperate need of physical and spiritual intervention. The Uricchios, who have paid their dues in the restaurant business, perceived beauty where others only saw disaster. "All things said and done, after all of our training and years in the business, this is where the road led us," notes Robert, who keeps his position at the front of the house in jeans and a henley shirt versus Laforêt’s formal suit and tie. After addressing the broken pipes and caving roof and investing a hair-raising amount of work, the brothers have re-opened the doors of the storybook Cross Keys Inn and have let in the world.

They’ve also rejuvenated the spirit of an old-style place to meet, where once again people can greet neighbors and share the day’s events. "Informal – it’s a place to relax," says brother Michael, who oversees the kitchen, "a place to get the sort of food that you can eat every day."
In between courses of the American bistro cuisine, my husband, Brad, and I took the opportunity to roam around. There’s the main dining room, tap room, lounge and eight upstairs rooms of different sizes and colors (six are private dining rooms) and individually tagged with items of local interest – hence the "Dogwood" room, "Pheasant," "Trillium," etc.

The Uricchios say their overall goals haven’t really changed – fresh ingredients, simple treatments, a general lightness of being. All stocks, table breads and desserts are made in-house, sans corn syrup, shortening, extenders. "It is never necessary to cover up great product," says Michael, a chef with the gift of making food taste better than anything you have ever eaten before. Joining him in the kitchen is head chef Lia Davidson-Welling, who worked alongside him at Laforêt.

I love the matchbox-sized seared yellow-fin-tuna appetizer, sliced thin, exposing the level of flame until the center is translucent, and served with a savory ginger-lacquer glaze and a smidgeon of fresh seaweed and Asian eggplant salad, all nice contrasts of temperatures and flavors. A gutsy pâté of foie gras with black truffles (a Laforêt trademark) is classic, and a jumbo lump crab cake, prosaic but nevertheless deliciously gratifying, is held together with just enough risotto to keep its shape. And while a salad can be an abused, neglected thing in these off-summer months, Cross Keys Inn does a pear, toasted walnut and roquefort with mixed greens that is just what I want. I’m tired of getting what seems like the meadow on a plate. Have it with a bowl of baby lentil, spinach and sweet-sausage soup or with Michael’s famous roasted chicken soup with vegetables and dumplings, a recipe I’m stuck on – mine never tastes quite as good as his.

Two baby quail roasted and stuffed with assorted mushrooms and a brown-and wild-rice mix are a cunning reminder of the past that translate well as entrees; a dish of sea scallops, shrimp and lobster, sauteéd with vanilla butter, is irresistible.

There’s a 14-ounce grilled rib eye, big, salty and charred on the outside for turf lovers; and for those who prefer surf, try a pan-seared halibut (a steak-eater’s fish) or grilled Tasmanian salmon that’s shipped from Honolulu. Note: Try the salmon if you’re burned out at just the thought of salmon these days. The Tasmanian, as good as Copper River, is melt-in-your-mouth quality. It has virtually no texture – "like a mousse," says Michael.

Also on the menu are macaroni and cheese, and burgers. Get either an 8-ounce half-Angus/half-Kobe mix that’s grilled and topped with pulled pork, caramelized onion, apple smoked bacon and a choice of cheeses, or go for the 6-ounce Angus burger if you’re counting anything. I rarely order a burger when I’m out, but I guarantee that the half-Kobe/half-Angus mix makes for a moist, grand burger. Kids love the cheeseburger and mac-and-cheese, but I’ll take whole-wheat pasta with walnuts, raisins, garlic, herbs and parmesan, an old standby from a long-gone vegetarian spot, Cornucopia in South Oakland, which Michael and I both agree we loved.

Desserts, those breezy, nostalgic satisfactions that take us all back to the roughly level playing fields of childhood, transcend even the "queen of pastry" tag that Michael’s wife, Candace, the pastry chef, has been given by locals. We use the "share method" to polish off a warm apple crumble, flourless chocolate torte and a crème caramel. The wine cellar, about 50 fine choices at fair prices, was staring at us, but we were content sipping coffee from La Prima Espresso.

Whatever your point of view, the Uricchios already have the kind of problems that any restaurateur – nascent or ancient, in Paris or anywhere else in the world – covet: Too many people anxious to get through the doors. Or how to keep bread, fresh out of the oven at 4:30, warm and get it to the tables.

The neighborhood needed this nonchain, American bistro, with its "come as you are, come without thinking about it" operative philosophy, a place to hang out, eat homemade food, where a glass of French red or a microbrew can be equally appropriate and encouraged, where one can splurge on four courses or stop impromptu for soup and salad (this month, look for spring onion soup and baked chèvre). City folk have started discovering that the drive is worth the pyrotechnics (myself included).

The place was so jammed, I had to wait until post-dessert to examine the trees and verdant countryside in the mural – cleaned, restored and protected for the next 100 years.

Each month, Deborah McDonald jump-starts appetites with lively restaurant reviews that scrutinize who’s cooking what and where. She works anonymously, visiting each restaurant at least twice before writing her column.

Do you know of a restaurant you’d like to have reviewed? E-mail Deborah.

Categories: Restaurant Reviews