Thursday, July 24, 2008

Fun Playing with the Creative Food of Steve Schimoler at Crop Bistro

Steve Schimoler is my kinda chef. Turns out, he grew up just down the road from where I grew up on the North Shore of Long Island (NY), and started playing with food by the age of 23. In addition to opening restaurants and a bakery, he got into food science and has a number of culinary creations to his credit. But more than anything else - he loves to play with his food, and it shows.

Eleven members of the Cleveland Food & Wine Forum enjoyed the fabulous hospitality of Chef Schimoler, Chef de Cuisine Tom Moran, and an attentive and friendly staff of servers last night. The dinner was set up as a tasting, with each diner chosing a starter and entree from the menu in addition to several tasting courses and shared desserts.

As we entered the space, I was impressed with the Manhattan feeling of the decor, and I loved the huge photographs of fruits and vegetables adorning the walls. Even the pillars were decorated with images of produce.

Our first taste from the kitchen was the Warm Pac Rim Popcorn:

The popcorn was tossed with citrus and Asian flavors, accompanied by slivered onions and peppers, and drizzled with spicy flavors.

Picnic Deviled Egg & Oven Dried Prosciutto

The deviled egg was heavenly - I don't know what they mixed with the yolk, but it was lip-smackingly delicious. Chef Schimoler encouraged us to eat this with our fingers, and to dip the egg in the beet reduction on the plate - and I not only used the egg for this purpose, but the cornbread which came to the table as we were eating this course.

Maple-Honey Butter (I think)

I'm sure about the maple, and less sure about the sugar (might have been brown sugar) - but whatever it was, it was perfect texture, taste and consistency to accompany the bread service.

House Made Cornbread

Ahi Tuna Sashimi over Watermelon with Two Flavors

This course more than amply illustrates the photographic challenges to my limited skills presented by this dinner. The dim yellow light made some things hard to capture - my apologies for not doing this dish full justice. There was a delicious glaze with soy and something else under the melon/fish combo, but I don't remember exactly what it was.

Lobster Latte

As this course came out, Chef Schimoler explained that he deliberately designs his menu so that the diner needs more information, and has to question the server - you play with your food even before you order it! I was afraid from the menu that this dish, with "latte" in the name, would be coffee - but it wasn't. It was a little cup of heaven! A light-as-a feather lobster bisque, containing chunks of perfectly cooked lobster and topped with foamed 2% milk and incredibly aromatic spices.

The Big Mac

Instead of 2 all beef patties - how about 2 seared Homer Wharf Scallop "patties" enveloping a slab of seared foie gras, over a polenta cake and a savory, mushroomy reduction (yes - I did give the actual mushrooms to Bob - but I loved the flavor they imparted to the sauce).

After we enjoyed these treats, Pastry Chef Olena Gudz visited the table to present her intermezzo:

Lemon-Lime Shaved Ice with Lemongrass and, I think, Mint

The perfect palate cleanser. Now, the appetizers appeared.

Crisped Pork Belly with Sweet Onion Caramel Glaze & Corn Demi

This was my choice - and it was the only plate I tasted the whole evening that missed the mark (and considering how many plates I tasted - that is actually, I hope, a compliment). The pork was dry and tough. However, others at the table who also ordered this dish complimented it very highly, so perhaps it was just this serving that wasn't perfect. Not to worry - there were lots of other great flavors and textures to come!

Cherry Bomb

Bob's appetizer was the polar opposite of mine. Brilliantly conceived and perfectly executed, a huge, luscious tomato was stuffed with a mixture of chorizo, bread crumb and cheese. It was then bathed in a light, tempura-style batter and fried. The Bomb was plated over fabulous cheesey-creamy corn, and surrounded with a sweet pepper coulis and an olive oil drizzle. Yum.

Seared Hudson Valley Foie Gras with Stone Fruit

I did not taste this one, but those that ordered it cleaned their plates - and given how good my "big mac" taste of the foie had been, I was not surprised.

One person ordered the Roasted Beet salad, and one person got the Stuffed Figs with Gorgonzola, Walnuts, Prosciutto & Rosemary. I didn't get photographs, but trust me, they looked delicious and the plates were all empty by the time they left the table.

After a short lull - out came the entrees. Bob again picked the winner.

Chicken Fried Duck with Aged Cheddar Grits & Smoky Black Beans

This plate went above and beyond. A tender, tasty duck breast was skinned - and the skin and top fat were rendered into a crisp. The crisp perched gloriously atop the cornbreaded-and-fried breast meat. I loved the cheddary grits, but the spicy, smoky beans were to die for!

Fish Special of the Day

Pan seared Black Striped Bass Filet, Tomatoes, Olives.

Seared Lamb Loin with "Beans Nicoise", Herb Vinaigrette & Fingerling Frites

My taste of this was wonderful, though I'd have liked the meat a little more tender, and a more developed crust.

Big Pile of Crop Pasta

This was my dinner choice (and I actually ate most of it for breakfast this morning, because I was almost full by the time this was served). It was simply amazing - the essence of playing with food! Neither the server's description, nor that of Chef Schimoler, really expressed the explosion of flavor that emanated from this plate. Housemade pasta was stuffed with a mousse-like concoction of veal and beef (and, I think, cheese) and herbs. The meaty filling melted in the mouth. The pasta rounds were plated over perfectly micro-diced fresh carrots (Thomas Keller, call your answering service), fresh garden peas, and most amazing this early summer time of year - fresh sweet corn kernels. Topped with fresh grated cheese and greens, the dish was brought together by a light, but incredibly tasty sauce. It was like Beef Stew deconstructed, then reconstructed with pasta instead of potato and smooth meat mousse instead of beef chunks. Brilliant!

View of the pasta filling

As it happens, only I ordered the pasta dish - everyone else either got the duck, the lamb or the fish for their entree. So - on to Chef Gudz's desserts.

By this time in the evening, after almost three hours of eating, it was hard to move fast enough to keep up with the servers dropping dessert plates across the table. It was harder to take quick pictures and listen to the descriptions of the desserts. So, work with me!

Some Like It Hot

Warm Flourless Chocolate Cake, Mentholated Habanero Ice Cream, Mango-Lime Coulis, Citrus Tuile
. I loved this - hot and cold and chocolate and citrus at the same time.

Southern Culture

7up Cake, Creme Fraiche Panna Cotta, Grapefruit Marmalade, Citrus Meringue. This was my second-favorite.

Backyard Soiree

Rhubarb Buckle, Stawberry Basil Ice Cream, Basil Gastrique, Basil Syrup, Rhubarb Crisps.

Pretzel Un-logic

Chocolate Caramel Pretzel Pie, Pretzel Tuile, Malted Milk. Wait - this was my second favorite. Or was it my first favorite? I don't even eat desserts!

I took a second photo - must be my favorite.

Flavored Shaved Ice with Fruit

I totally missed the description of this one - but it was cool and very refreshing on the palate after all of the spice, chocolate and pastry.

Derby Shortcake

Vanilla Pound Cake, Mint Julep Ice Cream, Sweet Peach Chutney, Pralines, Bourbon Elixir. I give up playing favorites - it was all superb! I'm so glad we played with these (as in, passed them around and dug a spoon in each), so everyone got to taste them all, and no one had to try to finish any whole serving.

After all of this wonderful food - how could there be more? A little parfait to end the meal:

I did not get a description, but it was cool, fairly neutral, and a perfect way to batten down the tummy after a food assault such as we experienced this night.

Cleveland is fortunate that Chef Schimoler has decided to sink his roots here. His whimsy, humor, commitment to quality ingredients, and ingenuity mean that a dinner at Crop will tickle your senses and please your palate. And, you get to play with your food!

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