It's 11:30 p.m. on a Thursday, and on the patio in front of Crop Bistro, the house band is jamming, the booze is flowing, and the fall breeze feels as velvety as the Ramos Pinto port that shimmers in my glass. Sure, those of us who gathered here for after-dinner drinks are digging the slyly named Cream of the Crop band; but even the passersby — the tipsy bachelorettes, the parking valets, and the steady stream of Warehouse District residents on their way to some weeknight shut-eye — can't help busting a few moves. "Is this really Cleveland?" a companion asks in mock amazement, as he surveys the colorful street scene.
If anyone tells you that fun is dead on West Sixth Street, send them to Steve Schimoler, the band's founder, drummer, and spiritual guide — and the resident food scientist, chef, and owner (along with fiancée and bar manager Jackie Shultz) of this most unusual downtown restaurant, where the food is as intense as the vibe is laid-back and homey.
The mere fact of being greeted with warm-from-the-oven cornbread — inside the former, very formal Johnny's Bistro — elicits a smile. Watching the long-legged Schimoler dash around the dining room in his shorts and a denim chef's jacket induces a giggle. And as for the inventive, labor-intensive, and explosively delicious dishes streaming out of the open kitchen — well, they're so damn good, it's hard to say whether laughter or tears is the most fitting rejoinder.
Not that Schimoler scaled such creative heights quickly. Long immersed in the science of food (a study he calls culinology), the Long Island-born chef has been a one-man enterprise for several decades now. Schimoler has owned and operated restaurants up and down the East Coast, held the post of VP of product development for Vermont's Cabot Creamery, worked as a consultant for Ben & Jerry's, developed food products for such like-minded chef pals as Todd English and Nancy Silverton, and perfected an innovative food-distribution system, which he sold to SYSCO. He finally wound up in Cleveland in 2005, as director of innovation and development for Nestlé North America.
Once he got the Nestlé folks on the right track, the peripatetic Schimoler decided to return to his own research and development projects. To do that, he needed a test kitchen. Enter Crop, a concept that began as an acronym for Customized Restaurant Operations Platform. Now, of course, the name has taken on additional meanings: It's an homage to the fresh, seasonal, regional ingredients the chef favors, and it plays on the sensual, tightly cropped photos of fruits and veggies that decorate the restaurant's tables and walls.
So how does Schimoler's R&D background bear upon Crop's New American menu, a tightly crafted paean to pork belly, figs, arugula, and sweet corn, which changes with the seasons? The ways are many and sometimes a tad mysterious. There's the vacuum tumbler, for instance — a contraption used to marinate and tenderize chicken (among other meats), infusing it with a symphony of citrus and sage. There's the novel emulsification process that helps transform whipped, unsalted butter into carefully calibrated sweet and savory slathers. Then there's the "secret box" of flavor distillations — intense concentrations that can add haunting high notes to everything from cocktails to desserts. Underpinning it all, of course, are the skills essential for a well-seasoned culinarian: the finely honed palate, an expansive flavor memory, and an almost-intuitive understanding of food's synergistic properties.
But Schimoler is quick to point out that this isn't micro-gastronomy, that trendy amalgamation of chemistry, technology, and ingredients that can result in dishes more shocking than seductive. No foams, liquid nitrogen, or puffs of smoke here; no envelope-pushing combos like anchovies and chocolate. Instead, items like braised St. Louis-style ribs, grilled rib-eye steaks, and, at lunch, macaroni and Vermont cheddar cheese with braised brisket are almost instantly recognizable to even unadventurous eaters.
That doesn't mean the kitchen doesn't enhance the commonplace with uncommon attention. Take Schimoler's whimsical Egg Drop soup — a delightful first-course combo of herb-infused tomato consommé, a perfect poached egg, and salty, chewy bits of Serrano ham that delivers a miniature explosion with every bite. Or his plush lamb tenderloin entrée, boasting a honey-like reduction of Calimyrna figs, hints of fresh spearmint, and an evocative herbal top note that kept us guessing most of the evening: Tarragon? Fennel? Fenugreek?
The enhancements often boost the ingredients' innate goodness — as with an amuse-bouche of fresh Amish sweet corn on the cob, slathered with basil aioli and rolled in shredded Asiago. Other times, the process produces some savvy impostors: succulent braised-and-pulled duck that can pass for confit, but with far less fat, or the mushroom crumbs dusting a creamy corn-and-crab "latte" that mimic the dusky essences of black truffles.
Top-quality ingredients play a major role in this kind of transformation. Consider the Tasmanian salmon, a deep-ocean fish raised on an organic diet, so lush and flavorful it's been likened to Kobe beef. Attentively grilled to an almost-evaporative medium rare, settled on a crisp-edged raft of coconut-basmati rice, and tweaked with a subtly sweet-tart salad of sliced cucumber, it's the best salmon dish in town.
Homemade desserts exhibit the same care and creativity, especially our current fave: an airy goat-cheese cheesecake, lightened with egg whites and crème fraîche, and piqued with vanilla and fresh lavender. Finished with crushed pistachio dust and settled on a lavender-infused sugar cookie, it's pure and sweet as a baby's kiss.
In light of all this culinary legerdemain, it clearly won't do to begin with cloying, artificially flavored cocktails. So Schimoler and his crew make everything — mixers, infusions, and the like — in the kitchen and from scratch. The results are intense but clean-tasting 'tinis like the Bloody Crop ($10), a tongue-tingling pour of pepper-infused vodka, cilantro, sea salt, and tomato juice; or the Caprese ($10), a bracing combo of tomato-infused vodka, basil, and balsamic, with an aroma so massive, you'll think you've stepped into a garden.
Should all this intensely crafted lunch-and-dinner goodness somehow not be enough, Crop also features a late-night menu Thursday through Sunday, a prix fixe family-style dinner on Sunday, and "Browns' Brunch," from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on home-game Sundays.
And of course there's the band, which tunes up every Thursday around 10:30 p.m. Featuring Don DiCarlo on guitar and lead vocals, Jason Burns on bass, Crop chef Chris Antes on guitar, and Schimoler on drums (as well as other local restaurant staffers, who sometimes drop by for a song or two), the group tackles everything from Hendrix and the Rolling Stones to the Grateful Dead and CCR.
It's damn tasty stuff — and still not as fine, or as fun, as the food.