Have you ever gone to a party and stumbled upon a kindred spirit — someone you can talk to for hours who loves all the same things you do and shares your most heartfelt opinions? It’s an encounter that is both unexpected and wonderful.
Dining at Crop Bistro & Bar, chef Steve Schimoler’s new restaurant in the Warehouse District, was just that sort of experience: He and I are on the same culinary wavelength. His creations are smart, taking advantage of technique and technology to get the most out every ingredient. He’s familiar with sous vide cooking, foams and gastriques, yet he doesn’t seed his small, seasonal menu with such intimidating haute terms.
Dishes are nuanced, seasoning is subtle. Instead of grabbing your palate in a bear hug, flavors bloom in the mouth. The kitchen’s efforts come across as uncomplicated, straightforward and unpretentious, while still involving numerous elements and intricate preparation.
And Schimoler serves it all in an informal atmosphere. The wait staff wears T-shirts and the customers can too. It’s like finding a new best friend.
Schimoler’s herb-infused chicken ($18) is a perfect example. I usually don’t order chicken because I often make it at home, and it’s generally not the most adventurous option on a restaurant menu. But I was lured by the promised additions of mushroom ragout and roasted cauliflower. The deceptively simple, homey dish was delicious —the meat astonishingly moist and savory. To achieve that, breasts, thighs and a marinade are put in a vacuum tumbler that lets virtually every drop of liquid be absorbed.
The braised pork shank takes a turn in the same piece of equipment, making it meltingly tender when set in front of you surrounded by cider-kissed cabbage ($25). This dish is not for the meek. There’s a lot of it, and thanks to the big bone jutting from the center, the entrée resembles something Wilma would serve Fred Flintstone. Schimoler describes it as primal therapy for your inner carnivore.
Even a plate of olives involves more than meets the eye. These luscious little honeys, sautéed with peppers, onions, rosemary and balsamic vinegar, then roasted, are irresistible. Originally meant as the occasional amuse bouche, they’re turning up more often in response to customers’ pleading. They’re offered on the house just like the basket of wonderful cornbread sticks and a trio of soft, spreadable flavored butters that could almost double as cake frosting. The olives will likely also end up on the late night menu (served 10:30 p.m. - 1 a.m. Thu-Sat), Schimoler says.
In contrast, the chef just gets out of the way and lets the ingredients speak for themselves in a splendid starter of fresh figs stuffed with Humboldt Fog chevre and Gorgonzola ($10). The proportions are just right, so the filling doesn’t overwhelm the fruit, and toasted walnuts and slices of prosciutto perfect the plate.
Chicken-fried duck is Schimoler’s take on American regional cuisine — three regions to be precise. The bird, with its cornmeal crust and creamy cheddar grits, gives a nod to the Deep South. The black beans (called a sauce but really more of a chunky side) have a chili-accented Southwestern twang, but because they’re prepared with molasses, brown sugar and cider vinegar, they simultaneously suggest the baked beans of New England ($27). The combination is original and appealing.
Schimoler has a sense of humor, and lobster latte ($7) is his culinarian’s joke. The frothy concoction, a less-rich version of a classic bisque laced with bits of claw and knuckle meat, is dusted with flakes of dried Portobello mushroom gills (the feathery underside of the cap) meant to suggest cocoa powder or cinnamon. As the punch line, he serves it in a small glass mug. It’s heavenly.
On one visit, the chef sent out a couple of cups on the house as an apology because his crew had gotten backed up and our entrées were slow to appear. The gesture was typical of how he and his staff take care of their guests.
Hot popcorn is another playful appetizer ($5). A riff on the movie-watching staple, the puffed kernels are glossed with a balsamic glaze and some Asiago cheese, and set atop arugula and fresh basil that’s been tossed in a sauté pan with red onions, peppers and sun-dried tomatoes.
The Big Pile of Crop is a weekly feature (market price). That’s Schimoler tongue-in-cheek-speak for a pasta special. The one I sampled was impressive: ravioli filled with a mix of pumpkin, mascarpone cheese and sage in a sauce made with roasted red peppers, mushrooms, butternut squash and nutty-tasting pumpkin seeds called pepitas, all garnished with a little mound of crispy shredded duck that added a delightful crunch ($22).
Desserts are also lighthearted. The Key lime tart avoids the typical cloying sweetness, and the little swirl of meringue is just enough ($8). Peppered whipped cream sets off gingered apples in a tarte Tatin ($7). But my favorite way to finish a Crop meal is the fluffy goat cheesecake with a rosemary lavender cookie crust ($9) — the taste makes me think sunshine, gardens and tea parties.
Chef-driven drinks pair spirits with wonders such as poached apples and cilantro sea salt. My only gripe is that when they’re served in martini glasses, the best stuff ends up stuck at the bottom and only the last sip delivers the full effect. So I was pleased that my Crop Punch, a refreshing rum and juice mix, came in a tumbler ($8).
Prices are reasonable, especially in relation to the quality and portion sizes. Schimoler tries out new ideas at the weekly Sunday suppers, and they’re a real bargain. Salads and sides come family-style, and the cost goes down if everyone at a table orders the same main course. Don’t be surprised if the chef shows up to ask your opinion. Schimoler often mingles with guests and loves to chat about what he does.
Crop would stand out in any city. Lucky for us, Schimoler opened in Cleveland. That was not a sure thing, given that he’s moved around quite a bit in his career, running four different restaurants on Long Island and one in Vermont. A corporate job in product development brought him here in 2006.
Once he decided to go out on his own again, the opportunity to take over the location formerly occupied by Johnny’s Bistro kept him in town.
It’s a beautiful, intimate space, little-changed since the former occupant except for the addition of striking food photos. At night, the dining room glows with candle flames and the lights of the cityscape framed in the front windows.
The atmosphere is warm, welcoming — and a great setting to enjoy Schimoler’s inspired cooking. I’m glad this guy is staying in Cleveland. I think you will be too.
Crop Bistro and Bar, 1400 W. Sixth St., Cleveland, (216) 696-2767, www.cropbistro. com; Lunch: Tue-Fri 11 a.m. - 2 p.m., Dinner: Tue-Sat 5 - 10:30 p.m., Sun 5 - 9 p.m. (bar Thu-Sat until 1 a.m.). Handicap accessible, major credit cards accepted, complimentary valet parking.