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August 04, 2009

Crop Bistro & Bar

Crop Bistro & Bar Dominic Armato

With the recent announcement that season six of Top Chef is just around the corner and the major work project that's been sucking my time now in the rear view mirror, I figure I'd better get this backlog cleaned up before Skillet Doux is once again consumed by reality TV madness. Thankfully, we're slowly settling in and rejoining the rest of the world at large, so let's see if we can talk food for a bit.

Fig & Bacon MartiniDominic Armato

As part of the endless parade of drives and flights that comprised the two-week moving process, we spent a little time in Cleveland and let grandma and grandpa corral the little ones while I transferred our worldly possessions from Baltimore to Boston. But on one of my four stops in Cleveland over that stretch, my ladylove and I managed to get out to another restaurant that's been on my short list for a few months. Situated downtown, Steve Schimoler's Crop Bistro & Bar is comfortable if a little dark inside, but on a beautiful summer evening, seated at a hi-top on the patio and separated from strolling pedestrians by a wall of climbing beans, we couldn't have been more prepared for the local foodstuffs that are Crop's mainstay.

Deviled EggsDominic Armato

Feeling a little saucy and presented with a list of specialty cocktails, I opted for the alcoholic version of one of my favorite flavor combinations, fig and bacon. Unfortunately, while I appreciated the drink's moxie, I couldn't say the same for its execution. The fig was undoubtedly present, but the bacon was a problem (yes, it is possible). It was a fine specimen, cured in-house, I believe, with a great peppery, smoky character and a figgy glaze. But it was jerky. And I like jerky, but not when it renders the meat almost inedible. A for effort, C- for execution. And so, thoroughly liquored up, we moved on to one of my weaknesses, deviled eggs. For a place that cultivates a connected-to-the-earth vibe, Crop's presentations -- for better or worse -- certainly don't lack pizzazz. Half of the whites had been rendered pink with beet juice, which could be mistaken for gilding the lily if not for the nice bit of sweetness that it imparted. Topped with crispy bacon and sitting atop a beet sauce and a balsamic syrup, they were simpler at heart than they appeared, and made this deviled egg lover happy.

Foie with Challah and Gingered ApricotsDominic Armato

My ladylove's appetizer brought some serious umami. She's a sucker for apricots, so there was no denying this dish. I only received a fleeting taste, but that was plenty to get the idea. A rich, seared slab of foie atop grilled bread with a meaty sauce that must've been finished with some demi-glace. The apricots lent a touch of sweetness and brightness, but this was a dish of concentrated meat flavor. Nothing subtle about it. My starter, despite the fact that it featured subtly flavored seafood, was similarly muscular. Seared scallops were set atop crispy bricks of polenta and topped with sun dried tomatoes and a tarragon-flavored butter bomb of a sauce. Butter and scallops, hey, no problem, but again, there was something very meaty about this dish and it was strangely light on acid. What it lacked in subtlety, however, it made up for with flavor. Solid dish. But it was still strange to be dining at a restaurant so focused on locally-sourced ingredients that didn't treat them a little more minimally.

Scallops with Sun Dried Tomato TarragonDominic Armato

With our tasty -- if surprisingly beefy -- appetizers out of the way, we moved onto entrees. My ladylove went for salmon, a thin wild caught variety seared quite crispy on the outside and served skin-on. Nicely done. The accompaniments, however, were problematic. Smashed peas okay, fresh and simple and green-tasting. A swipe of honey brought a little bit of welcome sweetness. The star attraction, however, was a little jarring. I'm not sure how the chef arrived at the word "jam" to describe the tomato sauce. Perhaps because it was sweet. In any case, I found it distractingly mediocre and -- again -- far removed from its fresh state. Rather than a fresh tomato jam prepared from the local crop, it came across as an overly sweet and chunky tomato sauce for pasta. And though it may be unfair to this particular dish, far too many experiences over the years with the kitchen's big pot of one-size-fits-all tomato sauce has conditioned me to get the heebiest of jeebies when confronted with any marinara-smothered protein that isn't breaded, fried and sitting on a bun. My ladylove enjoyed it. I was less enthused.

Salmon with Tomato JamDominic Armato

My lamb loin was the undisputed loser of the night. Sliced, seared loin served atop a sweet pea risotto with mint gastrique and a parmesan crisp, problems abounded. The gastrique was delicious, and a great choice to cut through the creamy risotto, but everything else on the plate was off. The lamb was tough and somehow lacking that distinctive lamb flavor. The risotto was all wrong. Though studded with beautiful fresh peas, the texture was all off, completely lacking bite. Even if it hadn't been billed as a risotto, thereby encouraging unfavorable comparisons to the Italian dish, it still felt wrong and was light in the flavor department to boot. Even the crisp -- though it wasn't billed as such -- was chewy and difficult to eat. Conceptually, I think it was solid. I think there might've been a good dish in there somewhere. But it wasn't coming out that night.

Lamb Loin with Sweet Pea RisottoDominic Armato

Those who have become familiar with my culinary proclivities will be surprised to hear that I considered dessert to be the best thing we ate that night. My ladylove's was fine but forgettable, a dense milk chocolate pie with a pretzel crust. But mine was simple and wonderful. Hot and crisp waffles were served with ice cream and strawberries, then drizzled with a bit of chocolate and surrounded with a sweet basil sauce and a touch of balsamic. I suspect that basil and strawberry will be the most overused dessert flavor combination of 2010. I adored it the first time I had it, I've seen it and loved it a couple times since, and a strawberry/basil dessert just received lavish praise from the critic judges of Top Chef Masters a couple of weeks ago. It's getting trendy. And with good reason. It works! Anyway, it was a wonderful finish to a so-so meal: hot/cold, sweet/savory... right up my alley.

Waffles with Ice Cream and Basil SauceDominic Armato

Crop has been getting some great press. A good friend whose taste buds I trust and who visited around the same time we did even had some wonderful things to say about the place. Heck, my wife enjoyed it, so I can't even write it off as a bad night. But I just don't get it. Crop is singing a popular tune. Fresh and local are de rigueur, bordering on popular dogma these days. But where other adherents to the cause like Woodberry Kitchen zig, Crop zags. The crowd is going minimal and understated, maintaining simple, fresh flavors. Schimoler is drizzling multiple sauces on deviled eggs, slathering dishes in heavy meat reductions, stewing tomatoes down rather than serving them fresh and generally making rich, heavy dishes where the trend is to keep things fairly simple and light -- especially surprising for a Summer menu. And I might consider it a refreshing break from the norm if the execution weren't so scattershot. There's some good stuff here. Schimoler can bring some big, hefty flavor to the table. But at times I found myself wishing he'd brought a little less.

Crop Bistro & Bar
1400 West 6th Street
Cleveland, OH 44113
Tue - Fri11:00 AM - 2:00 PM5:00 PM - 10:30 PM
Sat5:00 PM - 10:30 PM
Sun5:00 PM - 9:00 PM


Fig and Bacon Martini? I give you props for trying that. I'm pretty adventorous when it comes to food, but I like my martinis to be martinis and not random drinks in martini glasses. One of these days I'm going to make a cuba libre and put it in a martini glass and call it a "cuban martini".

Yeah, I can't say I'm a fan of the "anything served in a martini glass is a martini" convention either. I do, however, enjoy a creative cocktail from time to time. Just not this one.

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