Saturday, May 16, 2009

Crop Bistro, Cleveland OH

What happens when a self-taught chef (and interesting entrepreneur in the areas of sweeteners and butters) opens a brilliant restaurant in an “average mid-western town” that best known for cursed sports teams, a lake that caught on fire, and a chef named Symon whose personality on TV far outshines the personality or cooking at his restaurant? Apparently the self-taught chef gets overlooked despite his wonderfully detailed focus on local produce, artisan producers, unique presentations, and the fact that he still cooks in his own kitchen regularly. All these things noted I must admit I got taken up in the hype and had a relatively average meal at Lola earlier in the year while Crop sat notably on my “to-do” radar for some time - thankfully my sister’s graduation from the CIA lent a great opportunity to experience Steve Schimoler's culinary skills at the chef’s table.
After a classy yet (typically) boring graduation and myriad proud feelings for my sister we arrived approximately 15 minutes early for our reservation and parked at the affordably $5 valet (you certainly don’t get that in the big city.) Entering the restaurant I was somewhat surprised at how busy the place was at 6:15, but our hostess was quite gracious and quickly showed us to our place at the chef’s “table” – a bar peering directly into the intimate workings of the kitchen. With reservations made a month in advance I must admit that despite looking forward to our meal at Crop I had been a tad reluctant given my recent return from a culinary masterpiece of a visit to San Francisco and upcoming trip to New York City – I wondered if I’d simply walk away from Crop with that same “blah” feeling I’ve had at most eateries in the mid-west save for a few notable exceptions in Columbus and Chicago. From the moment we were seated, however, my fears were abated.

Greeted promptly by our casual yet professional server and provided with a quick hello from Chef Schimoler and a number of his smiling staff I was admittedly impressed early on by the cool, calm, and collected manner of the kitchen – nothing like the frenetic-yet-controlled chaos I witnessed at Charlie Trotter’s or the refined precision of the 20+ person staff at The French Laundry – only 6 people, quiet and working harmoniously with each doing their set “jobs” effortlessly. Shortly after my sister (chocolate stout), aunt (a super-minty mojito), and mother (some fruity prickly pear drink) ordered drinks and I got my first of many glasses of water we were given menus to peruse – and peruse we did as almost everything sounded amazing. After approximately 10 minutes and much negotiation amongst us so that we could maximize the number of dishes tasted decisions were made we sat back and enjoyed our drinks and the action of the kitchen.

Watching the young man in front of us flash extremely professional knife skills and an award-worthy personality (especially with a ~10 year old diner with her parents at the far end of the chef’s table) we were quite amused as we received the first of two amuses bouche directly from his hand – a Chile Deviled Egg with Crisp Pork, Beet, and Balsamic. While I am the only die-hard egg fan of our group, the amuse was a smash with everyone and particularly interesting to myself in the creaminess of the piped yolk puree’s sharp contrast with the spicy and crispy prosciutto. Complimenting the soft yet textural egg was a light earthiness from the beat and a strong spice from the (if I’m not mistaken) fig based balsamic – things were off to an excellent start.

Shortly after completing the egg we were brought the bread basket – a glorious surprise (though I admit a major bias.) While I fully believe that any “fine dining” establishment should offer a minimum of 3 types of bread, when the one offered is the best cornbread I’ve ever tasted outside the bacon-fat laden version at Roscoe’s in LA I’ll make an exception. Cutely shaped like mini ears of corn and served with a whipped honey butter – I’d have paid $10 for this if it were an appetizer. Lacking “whole kernels” of corn and textured almost like a baked polenta – heaven.

Before I could even finish my first (of about 10) cornbread we were brought another gift from the chef, himself. Approximately 1/3 the size of the appetizer portion (a steal at $7) we were each presented with a cup of the house made lobster latte – essentially Crop’s take on Lobster bisque but instead of butter heavy made with a seafood stock and crème fraiche whipped to a froth. Absolutely packed with whole chunks of lobster claw and much less “heavy” than a traditional bisque I found this to be a very interesting take on a classic dish – unexpected, unique, and delicious.

More action in the kitchen (including multiple preparations of the balsamic popcorn – clearly a house favorite) led to the delivery of our appetizers – two for myself, one for sister, one for my aunt, and a sharing spoon for my mom. The first appetizer, ordered by my sister, was Tobacco Calamari with Asian Aioli – a tired theme done by almost every restaurant from Denny’s to Aqua I must admit I didn’t expect much yet despite its odd constituents (or perhaps because of them,) it was both unique and delicious. Lightly panko coated and flash fried the tender cephalopods were tossed by the chef with a white mayo-esque aioli with hints of citrus and subsequently tossed with a handful of -yep- chopped tobacco leaf. Spicy yet aromatic this dish honestly makes me wonder why so few chefs have explored tobacco as an ingredient – very well done.

The second appetizer, entitled “Cherry Bomb” on the menu was ordered by my aunt – the kind of person who will order $12 tomato skewers with watermelon at The Bizarre de Jose Andres. Described as a deep fried tomato stuffed with Chorizo and Cheese on Corn Puree I must admit this appetizer is the sort of thing that deserves the title of “signature.” Quite unlike anything I’ve ever tasted I can best compare this to a pizza-roll, yet 10 fold better with plenty of spice from the Chorizo, creamy smoothness from the cheese, and plenty of textural contrast between the crunchy fried shell and the corn puree beneath.

Appetizer three, my first, was the only “miss” of the night and it was a “barely miss” at worst. Seared Elephant Trunk Scallops with Sun Dried Tomato Tarragon on Crisp Polenta was exactly that – but unfortunately the combination of less-than-stellar scallops and a bit too much “sear” led to a somewhat rubbery texture. To be fair, I must say that given my recent travels I’ve become a bit spoiled with west coast scallops and that may have lent to a bit of the disappointment with the dish, but overall it just didn’t do a lot to wow me. With fried polenta that was good, albeit not as great as the cornbread, the true standout of the dish was the impressively tart yet light tomato sauce.

Appetizer next was a must – something rare in Ohio and something I order whenever I see it on the menu – foie gras. Entitled simply Seared Hudson Valley Foie Gras with Toasted Challah and Gingered Apricots I will say flat out that the portion and quality was the best “bang for your buck” foie I’ve tasted outside of San Francisco’s One Market. While I prefer terrines to seared preps in general, the soft and ample portion of perfectly prepared liver was contrasted beautifully by the toasted challah which I had the opportunity to witness the chef carve out of a large loaf in a single motion (impressive knife skills with a knife I’d have surely lost a finger to if I tried the same move.) Per usual, the addition of an acidic citrus worked wonders for enhancing the flavor while the ginger added a very intriguing taste I’ve not experienced before. To all the foie lovers out there – it was better than Gary Danko’s or The Dining Room at the Ritz, two much hyped preparations.

Finished with our appetizers (and trying very hard to keep my hand off the bread basket so I had room for my main and dessert) a short time passed before main courses began arriving – the first being my sister’s “special du jour” - Pumpkin Crusted Swordfsh with Scallops, Quinoa, and Vegetables. According to the chef only about 10 servings of this would be available for the night due to the short stock of line-caught swordfish and as such I must say we were lucky to get a chance to taste. Crisp yet well cooked vegetables, wonderfully textured swordfish with a good balance of firmness and flakiness (especially for swordfish,) scallops much more delicately prepared than the appetizer though with similar taste, and nicely textured quinoa all brought to a sharp peak by the earthy sweetness of the pumpkin, nutmeg and chives. Brilliant, bold, daring – if I kept going I could probably run out of adjectives.

Dish two, my aunt’s, was the Truffled Mushroom Tarte Tatin with Asiago Anglaise. While the dish itself was excellent, I must admit that the preparation was even more fun to watch. Starting with a large pan that was coated with batter, fried, and subsequently baked before adding a mélange of mushrooms, truffle oil, and cheese and then flipping and further coating with cheese for presentation – very cool with a rustic French approach that would not be out of place at a place like Jean-Georges. Great flavor with a crispy and buttery crust I can honestly say that the only flaw of this dish might have been that it was too big for one diner – no problems though, I was more than willing to help her out.

The final main, ordered by both myself and my mother, was the Park Farms Chicken Fried Chicken with String Beans, Savory Ohio Maple Waffles. Super thinly pounded breast coated with panko and cornmeal on both sides, quickly flash fried in the deep fryer and finished in the oven the chicken’s taste and texture were wonderful and second to only Boulevard and Momofuku Ssam in quality. Textural and tasty the chicken’s savory components were well tempered by the soft and sweet waffle (buttermilk mixed by Chef Schimoler and then toasted on both sides) with ample maple syrup and perfectly crisp yet well done string beans. A fine dining take on “comfort food” that actually works – unlike so many other’s vain attempts at mac n’ cheese, meatloaf, and pot pies (save Mina’s lobster pot pie.)

Clearly after a meal of such quality dessert was a no brainer and with 5 options on the menu we opted for four different choices to be shared (neglecting the parfait which sounded good, but not overly inventive.) Starting with my selection, “Some like it Hot” with Warm Flourless Chocolate Cake, Mentholated Habanero Ice Cream, Mango Lime Coulis, Citrus Tuile – Tried and true, flourless cake once again equals lava cake and once again the presentation was standard – dense, warm, and safe. The addition of a wonderful mango-lime coulis added additional complexity while the citrus tuile added some crunch. Unexpectedly, however, was the ice cream – holy hell. While I fully admit I’m not the world’s biggest fan of spicy, this ice cream redefined “HOT” and as much as the menthol tried to temper the habanero, it failed. Despite this fact, however, I must admit the spice added a very unique aspect to a generally standard dish and it kept me going back for more – like Bart Simpson and the electric cupcake. Sure it took me two whole glasses of water to get through the dish, but honestly, I’d consider ordering it again – something about the spice and the chocolate just worked.

The second dessert, my mothers, was entitled “Waffles and Ice Cream” with Hot Waffles, Strawberry Basil Ice Cream, Seasonal Fruit, Herbs, Chocolate Sauce. True to its name the dish consisted of two of the same waffles offered with the chicken, but this time paired with strawberry couilis, chocolate sauce, and a complex strawberry/basil ice-cream and fresh basil. Voted a winner by my mother and sister, I personally didn’t love the dish as I simply felt the basil was too strong and lacked the subtlety of Daniel Humm’s at Eleven Madison Park.

Dessert three, ordered by my Aunt, was Pretzel UnLogic with Chocolate Caramel Pretzel Pie, Pretzel Tuile, Malted Milk Shooter. Loved by my aunt and enjoyable enough I personally found the most interesting aspect of this dish to be the interplay of the chocolate and salt, plus the wonderful shooter which tasted like a liquefied Malt Ball. In my opinion this dish lacked the imaginativity of the other desserts and although good could’ve been ordered at any number of places.

The final dessert, Crop’s signature “Crop Circles” with Hot Coffee Sorbet, Mocha Meringue, Espresso Blondie, Vanilla cream, Espresso Syrup was ordered by my sister and wowed on every level. With a sorbet that topped Jeni’s Black Coffee Icecream, Meringue that tasted better than Starbuck’s Mocha, and a Blondie with heavy hints of coffee flavor the whole dish was like a deconstructed/reconstructed tiramisu and appealed as much to the palate as the eyes - a definite must-order for anyone who likes coffee.

Finishing the meal and paying the bill (less than $60 per person with drinks, tax, tip) I must admit I was absolutely stuffed – but not to the point of discomfort – but lets just say I’m glad there wasn’t a course of mignardises or candies. Brilliant food in a lively setting, a chef who is as willing to support the local markets as he is to take risks, and a friendly amicable staff – plus prices that make “fine dining” accessible. While others will prattle about Lola and Symon, I’ve been to enough casual and fine dining establishments to definitively say that with Crop in town I’d never give Lola a second thought or chance – better food, better prices, better service, and no pretense whatsoever. At the end of this month my sister will leave Cleveland for a new city and I’m unsure how often I’ll be back, but if I do return I will make a return visit to Crop – Sunday Supper sounds excellent!

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