Into the Woods
A new café in Cross Keys is a worthy find
I always forget about Cross Keys. Maybe it's because the shopping center is tucked away in its wooded compound, making it easy to drive by and without notice. Or maybe it's the gatehouse at the entry, which makes me feel as if I need to show my passport before entering. But I'd been meaning to check out the Village Square Café (66 Village Square,  433-2233, villagesquarecafe.com), Cross Keys' newest restaurant, if only to grab a coffee and sandwich and take advantage of its free wi-fi. When the restaurant expanded its service recently by adding dinner Thursday through Saturday to its daily breakfast and lunch schedule, my overdue visit became mandatory.
With its casual, bistro-style menu, Village Square Café, not unlike the late McCabe's, will appeal to north-siders as a convenient antidote to the I-don't-want-to-cook-but-want-something-more-than-a-burger-and-I-don't-want-to-go-far-or-pay-a-lot-for-it dilemma. But where McCabe's was dark and as much a bar as a dining room, Village Square Café is all light, turned out in blonde wood, white wicker café chairs, and champagne-colored walls. It's still a multi-use space, however, so the creamy drapes that offset the back portion of the dining room and the brown leather sofas that create a small lounge in the front of the café feel somewhat at odds with the cold cases for pastries and sodas that sit near the cash register. The whole aesthetic comes off as dressed up deli (and if this bothers you, you can dine at a table in the courtyard among the dragon wing begonias and the sweet potato vines), but the perky service, including chef Shawn Lagergren's near constant presence in the dining room, fills the space with warmth.
In fact, I can't recall the last time I've noticed a chef working the room like Lagergren did the night of our visit. He greeted customers by name and answered questions about the food. (The oysters were from the Chesapeake; the gumbo recipe was his grandmother's.) And he even brought nearly every meal that came out of the kitchen to waiting customers. It's hard not to like a place that makes that much effort, and if the food doesn't dazzle with originality, it certainly doesn't disappoint either.
And really, isn't reliable familiarity, the likes of steak frites and roasted chicken (and in the Maryland version, shrimp salad and crabcakes), what café food is about? It certainly is at Village Square Café, which also offers a few appetizers, including a pesto-tinged crab dip and a trio of sliders in lamb, pork barbecue, and angus beef, thin-crust pizzas, and overstuffed sandwiches, as well as a limited number of entrées.
I hope the restaurant someday decides to offer the cornmeal-crusted oysters appetizer ($8.95) in an entrée-sized portion because they are simply fabulous. Flash-frying gives them a shattering crispness without sacrificing their juicy middle, and Lagergren uses just enough cayenne to elicit a spicy afterglow. Inevitably, the summer crab and corn salad ($9.95) feels mild in comparison, despite the presence of fresh corn and snowy lump crabmeat, though four plum tomato halves, roasted until nearly caramelized, add a flavorful spark.
If you're a fan of classic shrimp salad, you'll be pleased with Village Square Café's version ($11.95), lightly bound together with mayonnaise and served with a small dish of Old Bay on the side, in case you want to add a little more. Chewy slices of sirloin, grilled mushrooms, and onions tumble out of a sub roll in the restaurant's steak sandwich ($12.95). And I lost count of the number of steak sandwiches, snugly sharing a plate with piles of mahogany brown fries, I saw delivered to the tables around me. The sandwich is a pleasure, though be sure to tell your server if you want a condiment other than the jalapeno-spiked mayonnaise served on the side.
Lagergren's execution of his grandmother's gumbo ($16.95) shows that it's a recipe worth keeping. Studded with generous portions of chicken, andouille sausage, and nibs of green pepper, it is a traditional--if mildly spiced--rendition, save the four giant shrimp that stretched nakedly across the muddy roux-darkened stock. Large and pink, the shrimp look vaguely indecent isolated from the rest of the ingredients, and I felt an immediate urge to stir them into the rice.
Village Square Café has limited offerings of bottled beer (including local Clipper City and imports such as Guinness and Leffe), spirits, and wine, the last of which is even more limited by the presence of two Chardonnays and two Sauvignon Blancs on a white wine list that offers only five wines. It's no secret that two versions of the same varietal can taste radically different, but on a list this small more diversity among varietals would be welcome. The sweets lover in me would also love to see more than two house-made desserts offered, but even this tired-of-cheesecake eater enjoyed the lightness and the delicate vanilla flavor of the New York style cheesecake ($4).
Village Square Café already has the feel of a community restaurant, the kind where retirees have dinner with their financial advisors, moms and sons share post-lacrosse practice burgers, and empty nesters enjoy a quiet meal alongside impossibly thin women having a girls' night out. It's a tasty reminder that sometimes it's worth venturing into the woods.