Thursday October 18, 2012

HILLSDALE, NY - The recently opened CrossRoads Food Shop stands a stone's toss away from the intersection of Routes 22 and 23 - marking the middle ground between the Southern Berkshires and Hudson, N.Y.

The Food Shop also blends several culinary identities. It is a breakfast joint offering fresh baked goods, a hearty family restaurant with local roots, an cool-lit hideaway with cosmopolites of all ages gliding into the dining room. My visit on Friday evening bore appealing results.

Though normally I'd refer to my dinner companion with generic pronouns, I feel compelled to clarify that on this night I was on a date. A second date, to be precise, characterized by a bit of familiarity but significantly more mystery. This dynamic informed my selection of the Food Shop. I'd never seen the place, but I had heard rave reviews from two restaurateur friends. They made it sound special and impressive. And the drive was equidistant from my home in Lenox and hers in Hudson.

I was first struck by the simple elegance and warmth of the L-shaped dining room. The layout creates the illusion of two spaces, one containing the Food Shop's counter, which at this hour serves more as a bar, and the other with dark wooden tables and a few charming pieces of antique New England furniture. Lively movements in the kitchen, partially visible from the counter, add a human touch. This all falls under the gaze of an enormous map of Hillsdale mounted on the otherwise bare wall as if to constantly whisper the word 'local.' Perhaps because this was a date, I was mindful of how the dining tables were situated. Flirtation can, after all, lose a bit of magic if the neighbors are listening in. Though the tables are closer than need be given the room's expanse, a mere waiter's width apart, this was not a problem. I realized the appeal as soon as eye-catching plates were carried to nearby tables.

The CrossRoads Food Shop's "Autumn Dinner" menu gives steaming illustrations of each entrée with a string of adjectives and ingredients. Even the appetizers read like a connoisseur's grocery list. So, for example, a glimpse of the "hake and sea scallops with jasmine rice, braised fennel and cilantro" took some appealing words and formed them into a beautiful stew rich with tender fish and vegetables.

The $ 25 dish tasted as pleasing as it looked. The natural sweetness of truly excellent scallops infused the hake and rice, each gently contributing their own notes. The large chunks of soft fennel were gently flavorful as well, creating a dish that mingled several flavors within a narrow spectrum.

I'm glad I started with the $8 buckwheat blini with mushrooms and sour cream, an appetizer of crisp, buttery, and rich ingredients that helped define my entrée through contrast.

My date started with the $6 soup of the evening, a colorful medley of root vegetables with kale and cranberry. She followed this with the evening's standout dish, the $25 "club steak with lentils, cauliflower and red wine butter."

Fortunately the date was going well enough that she offered to share. We agreed that the local beef was impressively tender and flavorful, and that the accompanying cauliflower, lentils, and small cubes of bacon created a great dish. Both of our entrees were too large to finish. As our plates came and went, nearby diners glanced between their menus and our table, playing the same game we'd played a little earlier. One friendly pair even asked us how we liked our choices. This inquiry wasn't intrusive; it was welcome.

Perhaps due to the closeness of the tables, but certainly informed by the casual and jovial personalities of the servers and the muffled chatter softly emanating from the kitchen as well, it seemed appropriate to get to know the neighbors. If for no other reason than to decode the menu, it made simple sense.

I'll come back to the CrossRoads Food Shop the next time I meet someone from Hudson, or perhaps I'll impulsively drive there on my own. There are several items on the dinner menu that I'd like to try, and I'm curious to see what the place is like during the breakfast rush and a leisurely lunch hour. And since the menu changes seasonally, I can't imagine that the Food Shop will run out of interesting concoctions to try.