I usually buy a couple of gift certificates when the Cleveland Independents, a group of 80 locally owned restaurants, have their sales. (You have to be quick, they go fast!) Then for whatever reason, I tend to hang onto them until the expiration date looms near, then I have to get on the stick and use it or lose it.
I have been wanting to try Crop Bistro & Bar, and was lucky enough to score one of their certs in the last sale. From what I'd read and heard about chef Steve Schimoler, he seemed like my kind of a chef; self-taught, dedicated to seasonal cuisine and local ingredients, with a sense of humor.
When I found out there was a 6 seat chef's table overlooking the kitchen, and Tour de Crop, a chef's choice tasting menu ($65), that was my pick, but my sister admitted to be a little bit scared about the chef's choice part. While I've managed to get her palate expanded quite a bit, visions of offal and lots of mushrooms probably crossed her mind.
After parking with the valet shared with neighboring, Johnny's Downtown, we were pleasantly greeted and shown to our seats overlooking the kitchen. It's not a large restaurant, but was mostly full and not too noisy when we arrived around 7:00. By 8:00 the tables were filled, and the noise increased a bit. Most of which came from a nearby table of ladies, one of whom had a cackle that could nearly shatter glass. I swore there were going to be eggs under one of those chairs.
We started off with a glass of Reginato Celestina Malbec 2007. I love Malbec, but had never had a sparkling version. It was delicious, and the only actual ordering decision I made all night. Look at the pretty color in the glass.
Our waitress (who did an excellent job all evening), took care of the rest of the pairings at our request. She was also nice enough to introduce us to all of the kitchen staff, and my apologies for not retaining any names.
We were seated on the right side, so we spent most of the night watching the garde manger, and the saute station. Everyone was great about answering our questions and showing us the dishes we weren't getting - it's kind of like gawking at what your neighbors ordered without actually having to rubberneck their table. The skirt steak which came with mini-gratin pan with a potato and Brussels sprouts dish was popular, and looked yummy.
First course was a devilish play on ham and eggs - deviled egg with chiles - a little ancho, some chipotle, so it had a pleasant kick, topped with a bit of crispy prosciutto and plated with a beet sauce and some balsamic gastric. Michelle's egg was dyed pink with some of the beet juice.
Next we were brought some homemade cornbread sticks with honey and black pepper. Which really inspired me to get the cast iron corn stick pan I scored at a tag sale seasoned so I can get it into service.
Our next wine was presented, a Coopers Creek Pinot Noir, 2006, Marlborough, New Zealand.
The next course arrived, two perfectly cooked shrimp atop polenta with smoky bacon lardons, with a hint of chipotle, and a maple syrup sauce. It was smoky, sweet, and warm, kind of like curling up a next to a nice fire on snowy day.
After practically licking the plates clean (those corn sticks came in handy...), we watched the action start to pick up in the kitchen as most of the tables filled. There was also a party of twenty in a private room, so that kept things hopping.
One of the signature starters is a Warm Balsamic Popcorn, and we watched plenty of it getting prepped. Thin strips of red pepper are tossed in a pan with hot oil, then previously popped corn is tossed in the pan, and finished with a balsamic syrup, baby arugula, and generous handfuls of grated parm. We got a sample at the end of the meal, but were too pleasantly stuffed to truly appreciate it by then.
At this point, I was full enough, I could have stopped eating, but who are we kidding? We aren't even halfway through.
Next course - two perfectly seared large sea scallops, served on top of a fried redskin potato slice and finished with white truffle emulsion. The white truffle emulsion was added by chef Steve in front of us from a iSi Dessert Maker/ Cream Whipper - Brushed Aluminum,just like one I happen to own. Of course it didn't occur to me to reduce some cream with shallots, and 'truffle-ize', as the chef explained to me how it was made. Most of my clients aren't ready to be truffle-ized. I need to work on that.
Meanwhile, the action in the kitchen continues, including some mugging for the camera. They also tickled the dishwasher while he was gathering pans from under the stovetop. Thankfully he laughed and didn't come up swinging (like I might have...).
The next course was duck confit with a poached egg served atop some amazing smoky black beans and a smoked shallot demi. (Admit it, you just made a lip smacking, moany noise, didn't you? Or was that me?)
Our next wine was Jim Barry "Lodge Hill" Shiraz 2007, Clare Valley, Australia. It was excellent, and I thought it paired nicely with the next course of pork belly, but not as much with the final meat course of lamb. (by then, I really didn't mind)
Here is the pork belly with pickled vegetables and molasses. Underneath was a Cortland apple and cherry hash. I really loved the acidity that the pickled vegetables added to the dish. It was a party in your mouth, and delicious with the shiraz.
Chef Steve decided to give us a little break, where we both wished we'd worn stretchier pants, to chill out with the "Cropsicle' du jour, which was Cranberry, Rosemary, Apple. It tasted just like a jelly I used to make at the end of summer. A little palate cleansing frozen sorbet on a stick - clever!
After a little rest, the final meat course was presented, a seared lamb loin with a black fig demi, fennel, and butternut squash risotto. (The moaning noise was definitely me this time).
Michelle's first lamb, she declared it not as 'lamby' as she feared, which we determined meant gamey. The risotto was outstanding - creamy, nicely cooked, with lovely bits of squash. We aren't discretely attempting to lick the plates anymore at this point. There's not much room left. Just a little bit for dessert.
Dessert was a trio: A Waffle with Ice cream and Apples, Caramel, Cranberries,Vanilla Bean Ice Cream, Pretzel Unlogic (Chocolate Cream, Caramel Pretzel Crust, Malted Whipped Cream, Pretzel Tuile), and Tangerine Creamsicle Float - Tangerine Soda, Vanilla Ice Cream, Whipped Cream.
It was an outstanding meal, a really fun experience to watch the kitchen in action, and everyone, from the hostess, our waitress, chef Steve, and the entire kitchen crew, made it a night to remember.
We'll be back, save us a seat at the chef's table.