Sitting in the lounge area of the new Crop Bistro, I felt a little like an audience member at Cirque du Soleil: There was so much going on, I didn't know where to look. There was the dazzling room, of course, with its jaw-dropping architecture and theatrical open kitchen. A pro athlete sits just over there, ripe for people watching, while through the floor-to-ceiling windows, there's a great glimpse of the West Side Market tower. Oh yeah ... and then there's my dining companion, who I was totally ignoring in favor of my braised pork belly and waffles.
Next time, we'll pack some blinders.
Rare is the confluence of popular and critical opinion, but since the day Crop Bistro burst onto the Cleveland dining scene, there has been near-unanimous consent that this restaurant kicks ass. It does so because its captain, Steve Schimoler, has an uncanny knack for making complicated food come across as utterly simple. And good luck finding a dish that doesn't taste like it was prepared by angels in aprons.
It takes stones to uproot a perfectly successful restaurant and transplant it to a room the size of Delaware, but Schimoler has never been accused of being a shrinking violet. The main fear was that at 10,000 square feet, the space would appear empty when less than full. I have yet to see that happen. Is the dining room loud? What?! Yes, it is, but it's much quieter in the raised, carpeted area across from the kitchen.
Since Crop originally set sail in the Warehouse District back in 2008, I have been an unabashed fan. This convivial American bistro consistently proffers menus that make ordering a quandary. And while Crop does always seem to have "something for everybody," it accomplishes that feat with a crisply tailored lineup of seasonal eats.
Happily, Crop fans will observe no major changes in the cuisine. We're going to pick up right where we left off, Schimoler had promised when his plans first surfaced. That means diners can kick off meals with balsamic popcorn, deviled eggs, and "Cherry Bombs": dishes that go clear back to opening day. There are always seasonal appetizers as well, built around scallops, pork belly, and the chef's personal fave, Hudson Valley foie gras.
My favorite pork belly prep might be the one I recently snubbed my dinner date for: crisp-edged pork served atop airy malt waffle quarters and gilded with a fruit and port demi. Matchless seared scallops are coupled with fried polenta cakes and drizzled with the most flavorful lobster cream sauce I can recall licking off a plate. The only fault found with tropical lobster and mango lettuce cups is that they were impossible to eat out of hand.
Our Cherry Bomb, a longtime darling that consists of a deep-fried sausage-and-cheese-stuffed tomato, was not exactly "the bomb." Marred by chewy out-of-season corn, unwelcome tomato skin, and a soupy interior, the dish may need a tune-up.
But mains — often a letdown after imaginative starters at other restaurants — keep the flavor train rolling merrily along. While far from reinventing the wheel, Schimoler's perfectly seared tuna is sushi-fresh, meaty as beef, and thankfully lacking the straight-from-the-fridge chill of many versions. We were particularly fond of the accompanying edamame mash and shiitake salad. Look at the supple chicken confit the wrong way, and the bones practically flee the scene. Celery root in the mashers brightens up this wintry side, while an herb and citrus gremolata does the same for the bird.
Easily one of the best dishes I've had recently — here or elsewhere — is the fried pork chop: a meaty chicken-fried chop with zesty chorizo gravy, fluffy cheese grits, and pork-scented braised chard.
There was much murmuring about Schimoler's extended absences this winter while he was opening a second Crop with his son in Stowe, Vermont. There needn't have been. With or without the boss around, executive chef Mitch Keener and GM Jackie Shultz ensure that every experience is as consistently delicious as it has been since day one.