Donna’s At Cross Keys Makes For A Savory Getaway From The City Center
I heard that Mary Soto, formerly chef at the much-missed Ruby Lounge, had moved to the Donna’s at Cross Keys (5100 Falls Road, 40 Village Square,  532-7611), bringing with her a smattering of the signature dishes—fried oysters, green chili won tons, meat loaf—that always went down so well with the Absolut vodka that was all the rage in the late 1990s.
So, on one of those recent muggy evenings, my friends and I headed up Falls Road—watch that speed trap!—and pulled into the Village of Cross Keys, the Rouse Co. project that gives planned communities a good name. The temperature felt about 15 degrees lower than it did five miles back downtown, and the intense perfume from thickset trees and flowers hurtled one dining companion into reveries of his Midwestern childhood.
Donna’s occupies a choice corner of the shopping complex, and there’s something very appealing about the low-slung Northern California architecture here. The interior is groovy and serene, flattered by floor-to-ceiling windows, and widely spaced tables occupy a spacious outdoor deck. It’s here you want to eat on a lazy summer night. We dined there on a weeknight, when most patrons were grabbing an early dinner—by 9 p.m., we had the whole patio to ourselves.
The menu at Cross Keys, as it turned out, remains nearly entirely the creation and inspiration of Donna Crivello. What contributions Mary Soto makes typically arrive in the form of specials, and usually later in the week. This was not a bad thing. I have something to look forward to next time I visit, and this gave me the chance to try some of the menu items that are withheld from the menu at the Donna’s in Mount Vernon, which is slightly handicapped by an antediluvian exhaust system. (“All my clothes smell like Donna’s,” the staff members there complain—roasted potatoes and coffee.)
We started our meal with a bowl of chicken gumbo ($4.95), a cup of gazpacho ($3.25), a plate of calamari ($8.95), and a half-serving of Donna’s Sicilian tuna salad ($3, when ordered with an entrée). The gumbo, stuffed with hunks of flavorful chicken, rice, tomatoes, and okra, tasted like the real thing, like something that started with a real buttery roux, as opposed to a leftover soup masquerading as a gumbo. Equally good was the impasto-thick cucumber-and-cilantro-flecked gazpacho, which looked and tasted as though it had been freshly pulverized from ripe tomatoes.
The peppery coating on the calamari was fried to a pleasing crispiness; the squid itself remained chewy but not tough. An accompanying marinara sauce, served warm, spoke well of Crivello’s Italian roots—it was full-bodied and spicy. But because I came with Mary on my mind, and because, too, the weather had turned balmy, I found myself wanting to dip the calamari in something like the Ruby Lounge’s cool lemon-and-red-pepper aioli. A choice of sauces would be nice. The tuna salad, a longtime Donna’s specialty, is still the best in town—quality tuna tossed with capers, olives, and onions, and served with a variety of pickled peppers on handsomely arranged mixed greens.
Flank steak is back in style this season. It’s the must-have cut of beef. Donna’s version, an entrée salad ($11.95), boasts four broad slices of marinated beef, grilled just beyond the requested rare, set on hand-torn romaine, and topped with a sterling Gorgonzola vinaigrette and, in a nice flourish, crispy fried onions. A big serving of good food, which tasted even better at midnight, after chilling in my fridge. A pork chop entrée ($16.95), expertly grilled and stuffed with Gorgonzola, was laid atop a circle of bright orange mashed sweet potatoes, and these were encircled by a ring of vivid green, slightly crispy spinach. Topped off by a fragrant fig sauce, the dish’s strong, earthy component flavors all had room to operate, while combining in a satisfying whole.
Something wayward happened with a promising grilled mahimahi entrée ($17.95). The fish itself was handled flawlessly, its unique delicate flavor preserved, but the caramelized onion broth was cloying, making clumpy the bed of rice noodles and kind of clobbering the flavors of the accompanying lemon grass and bok choy.
I’ll add here that Donna’s at Cross Key’s wine list is well-considered, accessible, its taste notes particularly well-written. Most selections are available by the glass. And you’ll feel like drinking wine here. The food is entirely up to snuff, and the restorative setting could be prescribed by mental-health professionals. And at the end of the evening, I didn’t smell like Donna’s.