Taste Test: Crop Bistro & Brewery

A Crop Divided

Photo: Tom Bivins - Crop Bistro - Stowe, VT

By CORIN HIRSCH [02.21.12] — Seven Days

When the crew behind Crop Bistro & Brewery began revamping the space in Stowe where the Shed Restaurant & Brewery had reigned for 45 years, they trod carefully. After all, the Shed was a beloved local hangout with its own mythos, where the food seemed almost immaterial to the scene and the ever-flowing beer.

So as restaurateur and chef Steve Schimoler (co-owner of Waterbury’s now-closed Mist Grill) began gutting the place after the Shed closed last fall, he was careful to preserve the pub’s feel. The Crop gang scrubbed and tore away decades of funk and smoke and spilled beer, but kept the bar, the layout and the cozy, woodsy feel.

In the spacious dining rooms on the other side of the building, Schimoler went whole hog with the renovation, decking out the main bistro room with an elegant, circular bar adorned with gnarled cedar boughs. With its warm-toned walls and floors, Peter Miller photographs, and humongous stone fireplace, the space is drop-dead gorgeous.

As his culinary ace in the hole, Schimoler partnered with Tom Bivins, former executive chef at the New England Culinary Institute. After stints at the Inn at Shelburne Farms and Warren’s Pitcher Inn (which he opened), Bivins had been at the school for eight years, cementing his reputation as an inventive chef and champion of local — particularly wildcrafted — foods. Just a few months ago, he won the Chef of the Year award from the Vermont Chamber of Commerce.

A high-profile chef, a high-profile spot and a stunning new dining room. So is the food immaterial to the scene at Crop Bistro? No, but it’s still finding its footing.

Key to understanding this work in progress, perhaps, is noting that the restaurant’s concept was imported from Crop Bistro & Bar in Cleveland. Schimoler founded that establishment five years ago as both a farm-to-table eatery and a food lab, in many ways an extension of his work as a food scientist and researcher for Cabot Creamery and Nestlé. In Ohio, Crop has earned a reputation as an innovative, playful spot where the kitchen marries fresh produce with modern culinary gear such as vacuum tumblers.

Its name has become something of a brand, adorning many dish names (Crop Cobb, Crop Burger, Crop Pops) on the Vermont menus, which can be a tad confusing. There’s a bistro menu and a pub menu, but they refer to times of day rather than places. Whether patrons sit in the pub or the main dining room, they can order from the same lunch and dinner menus, the same wine, beer and creative cocktail lists.

Some of the starters come straight from the Ohio menu — for instance, deviled eggs dusted with chili powder ($4 for four), two of which are topped with bits of crispy, salty bacon. The Cherry Bomb ($7), a plate of two Roma tomatoes stuffed with chorizo sausage and Jack cheese, wrapped in wonton shells and deep fried, comes off as a midwestern snack — gut sticking and kind of greasy. Cleveland diners reportedly have gone wild for Crop Pops, the warm, savory popcorn drizzled with various sauces. A $4 bowl of popcorn with balsamic vinegar, wilted arugula and sun-dried tomatoes is a sweet-salty and inventive snack, albeit a little soggy and best ordered alone as bar food rather than as an appetizer — it’s filling.

Other appetizers (and main dishes) mimic their Cleveland cousins with rustic twists. For instance, in Ohio, braised pork belly is served over a malt waffle; in Stowe, the cubes of luscious meat are crisped on one side and served over a delicious tangle of cider-braised cabbage ($10). It’s almost a meal in itself.

Other appetizers are less well balanced or muted in flavor. A cheddar-and-ale soup had the cheering color of golden sunshine but was on the thin side, both in consistency and taste. Also disappointing was a plate of broiled Blue Point oysters ($12 for six). Instead of having blistered flesh, these were only slightly warmed before being bathed in what tasted like a roux; the toothpick-thin radishes scattered across the top accentuated the textural discordance.

From the start, the owners have been clear that Crop is not trying to be a “white tablecloth” restaurant. Still, the more I ate here, the more I picked up on a kind of dissonance. Perhaps those Ohio-born dishes are out of place in Vermont, or perhaps the kitchen is still working things out, or perhaps the two separate dining spaces have brought about a similar fjord in the menu.

It can be unfair to pin a dish’s success on its surroundings, but I found myself happier eating most of Crop’s fare in the pub, where it felt more at home. Take the Raclette ($10): a double-fist-size cast-iron pan layered with soft, steamed potatoes and oozing raclette cheese (from Spring Brook Farm) and laced with minced, piquant cornichons and red onions. With a pint of beer in the other hand, this was the perfect unfussy, filling après-ski snack. In the more majestic dining room, it seemed unanchored and dwarfed by its surroundings.

Same with the po’boy, stuffed with light-as-a-feather fried, crunchy oysters and drizzled with tangy, messy remoulade slaw. In the pub, the sandwich was a finger-licking snack. Set down in the dining room, it looked underdressed for the ball. So did the Poulet Confit sandwich, filled with shredded chicken and slathered with a scrumptious grain mustard; in the pub, I could be more forgiving of its slight dryness. (The fries that came with both sandwiches were long, fingerlike, moist and fresh.)

Each night brings a weekly special here, and I looked forward to the braised short ribs offered on Wednesdays. However, when I visited, the ribs were replaced by tenderloin. I opted instead for a Crop Burger, a wide, flat patty delivered on a glossy, almost-blackened bun. Though the burger came medium-rare as requested, the meat lacked a depth of flavor, a flaw that even melted cheddar, tangy ketchup and mustard, grilled red onion, and two crisscrossed slices of maple-cured bacon could not disguise.

To be fair, I was much more interested in the small-plates list and didn’t delve too deeply into the entrée menu, which includes dishes such as scallops with “chorizo dust” and grilled skirt steak in a ginger and porter sauce. I expect that, in Bivins’ hands, the truffled mushroom and barley risotto is an earthy delight. But we were definitely thrilled with a warm salad of succulent lobster chunks tossed with fingerling potatoes and a creamy, saffron-like sauce lightly laced with sherry ($25).

If Crop’s food sometimes leaned to the restrained side, the drinks did not, at least flavor-wise. The cocktail menu includes a stellar, puckery sidecar and a not-to-miss libation called a Mr. Figgy, a martini glass filled with bourbon, fig reduction and rosemary shards and garnished with maple-cured bacon. The bar offers some 15 wines by the glass — including two sparklers — and an eclectic list of reasonably priced bottles.

In a few weeks, 1859 Mountain Road will again become a bona-fide brewery with the arrival of new equipment from Germany. Schimoler says brewer Mark Ewald will concentrate on food-friendly beers such as kölsch and lager, sometimes using hops grown out back. For now, the exuberant tap-beer list includes Rodenbach Grand Cru, Sierra Nevada Ruthless Rye IPA and the smokin’ new Fiddlehead Brewing IPA from Shelburne.

Those beers may be the main draw between 2 and 5 p.m, when the eatery switches to a pub menu composed mostly of snacks. (Those who arrive right after 2, as I did one afternoon, will find the cutoff is quite strict.) Whether it’s afternoon or evening, diners may find the service at Crop can be languid. In the pub, we had to ask three times for water, once for a fork when the second courses arrived and so on. In the bistro, service was snappier, but our waitress disappeared for significant stretches.

Crop feels like it’s trying to do a tricky balancing act — adapting a menu from one region to another, making that menu work in two very different dining rooms and negotiating the Stowe site’s past and future. In Vermont, farm-to-table is practically a second language, and this ski town is crowded with dining options that shoot for the mid-palate. Once local gardens and woods start teeming with life again, it would be gratifying to see Crop find its ground, literally and figuratively, with a menu as wild and free as the imaginations of its partners.

Crop Bistro & Brewery, 1859 Mountain Road, Stowe, 253-4765. cropvt.com

 

First Bite: O'Grady's Grill & Bar, Stowe

Inland Sea

BY CORIN HIRSCH [02.07.12] | Seven Days

With his ruddy cheeks and earnest demeanor, Kevin O’Grady certainly looks Irish. And a passerby on Stowe’s Mountain Road could be forgiven for thinking his namesake eatery is exclusively Irish, too — a classic pub with plenty of beer and hearty food.

That’s what I expected to find inside the rambling place where the Partridge Inn Seafood Restaurant used to reside. But when O’Grady — a former radio advertising salesman — purchased the place in late fall and began renovations, he talked about not just beer and pub fare but also seafood, saying it would still loom large on the menu. After all, the restaurant shares grounds, and will soon share a building, with Stowe Seafood.

When O’Grady’s opened in late December, its menu was peppered with Irish/English classics such as shepherd’s pie, corned beef and cabbage, and Irish nachos — the requisite oversized portions of gut-sticking fare. One visit, though, was enough to raise my seafood antenna, and, after two visits, I thought of O’Grady’s as a miniature ocean in this mountain burg.

Sure, diners can come here for the warm vibe, the copious beer and the bold flavorings of chef John Howell, who once presided over the Cliff House at Stowe Mountain Resort. (The Maryland-born Howell also cheffed for five years in North Carolina, and the first clue to his Southern provenance arrives with the bread basket: It’s filled with warm cornbread muffins and banana bread.) But there’s much here for fish-heads to love, and at gentle prices, too.

Inside, O’Grady’s has a dual personality. On one side, two huge dining rooms are painted in cool tones, their tables generously spaced. On the other, a blood-red pub features beamed ceilings, two televisions, a long bar, a few high tables and clever, homey touches: The staff keep liquor bottles on an old stairway, an antique copper tub is filled with ice and bottles of beer, and taps are installed in a horizontal beam behind the bar.

It was here that I downed six plump, crisp Thatch Island oysters ($13 for six), served on a bed of salt with a punchy tomato mignonette. They were so fresh, they tasted almost ethereal; the starter promised more good things to come.

A few days later, I tucked into a plate of Ed’s Fish ($9), named for Stowe Seafood owner Ed Flanagan. The slivers of snow-white haddock were first dipped in an Otter Creek Alpine Black IPA beer batter, then deep-fried and piled atop moist, fingerlike fries. Once again, the fish was fresh and light as a feather, almost a meal in itself.

So, too, was another gem from the starters list: a bowl of tender steamed clams ($8), bobbing around in a buttery broth laced with slivers of tomato and herbs.

The parade of seafood continued through the larger plates. A rosy filet of Arctic char ($19) with a paper-thin potato crust was tasty, though somewhat dwarfed in flavor by the powerfully smoky cheddar mashed potatoes served alongside it. A seafood cioppino ($17) yielded hunks of über-fresh salmon, shrimp and clams, with curls of roasted red pepper for sweetness and charred slices of crusty, garlicky Elmore Mountain Bread to mop up the juices.

O’Grady’s offers lovers of landbound fare plenty of dishes, as well, most of them composed with careful attention to flavor. A grilled romaine salad, tossed with artichokes and a tangy grain-mustard dressing spiked with minced anchovies, was rich with charred, earthy notes. A half rack of ribs ($15), falling-from-the-bone tender, was rather sweet, but tempered slightly by the baked beans and creamed spinach sides.

The tap beer selection is local but not wildly original — think Magic Hat #9 and Switchback. But a few creative cocktails, including an Irish Manhattan (made with Irish whiskey), and thoughtful wines round out the menu.

Though I haven’t had those Irish nachos yet, I saw them delivered to other diners a few times. They appeared to be a tangle of potato slivers smothered in melted cheese, dotted with crème fraiche and kissed by chives. And they disappeared quickly. Someday I’ll give them a try, too — if I can wean myself from the fish.

O’Grady's Grill & Bar, 504 Mountain Road, Stowe. Info, 253-8233. ogradysgrill.com

Sneak Peek: Inside Stowe's soon-to-open Crop Bistro & Brewery

New Crop

BY CORIN HIRSCH [12.20.11] -- Seven Days

There will still be a cozy pub, a spacious bistro serving unfussy fare and a brewery. But inside the footprint of the restaurant formerly known as the Shed, the new eatery set to open in a few weeks is altogether reimagined.

Inside Stowe’s Crop Bistro & Brewery, at 1859 Mountain Road, the rooms are full of the smells and noises of renovation. Its scale speaks to the vision of the collaboration between Tom Bivins, former executive chef at New England Culinary Institute, and Steven Schimoler, longtime restaurateur and food scientist. Schimoler is the former chef-owner of Waterbury’s renowned Mist Grill, which closed in 2005.

Many new elements, from the menu to the décor, will draw on the template of a namesake Cleveland restaurant, the 16,000-square-foot Crop Bistro & Bar. Schimoler founded it four years ago, in part as a food lab. It has since won national recognition for its inventive approach to farm-fresh food.

“We’ll capture signature stuff from Crop in Cleveland,” says Schimoler, who is on his third restaurant launch of 2011 and his 11th overall. Beyond assurance that diners will find locally grown and wildcrafted morsels, he and Bivins are enigmatic on the specifics of the food. They’ll definitely introduce Crop’s signature popcorns (with such flavorings as sun-dried tomatoes and balsamic reduction) and develop a Crop beef jerky using local supplies, such as beef from Vermont Highland Cattle Company.

Schimoler opened Mist in 1999, long before farm-to-table was hot. “Crop is about food that is local, and that has become a given,” he says. “That’s what we were doing 15 years ago.”

“The goal is for Crop Stowe to have its own food identity,” adds Bivins. Diners can choose from a pub menu or a bistro menu served in one of the more spacious dining rooms, or occasionally a “Tour de Crop,” or seven-course tasting menu.

As they finalize the fare, the pair have gutted the kitchen. Workers have peeled away the pub floor to reveal wide pine planks. A curved bar adorned with gnarled cypress boughs creates an Adirondack Great Camp feel in the middle of the former dining space, and Vermont photographer Peter Miller’s iconic images will hang throughout. Glass will expose the brewery, anchoring a corner of the pub.

A new copper-clad brewery is on order from Germany, and Bivins and Schimoler have already hired their head brewer: Mark Ewald, formerly of Long Trail Brewing Company. Ewald is formulating recipes on his home brewing system, where Schimoler says he sampled “one of the best beers I ever had. I like to think he’s an 11 on a scale of 10. He’s very accomplished.”

Beers will work in tandem with the food rather than overwhelm it — nothing “over the top” or too high in alcohol, Schimoler says. “We’ll have traditional Old World styles, such as Kölsch and lagers. We’d like to honor tradition.”

Cocktails will draw on the kitchen’s culinary prowess. In Cleveland, Crop’s libations have such ingredients as rhubarb bitters, coconut foam and fig reduction. “We find ways to get our kitchen philosophy into the bar. I look at it as an extension of the kitchen,” says Schimoler, whose son, Steve, will oversee the bar program.

Crop will eventually get a water-conditioning system similar to that of its cousin in Cleveland, which will enable the staff to improve on their well water and possibly replicate the subtle flavor profiles of other waters around the world. That can be a building block for dough and beer, says Schimoler.

Schimoler is confident that Stowe’s diverse clientele can support the new establishment, but “You have to earn that trust,” he says, and notes that Crop will offer food at various price points. “You can eat for $15 or $50. Local food doesn’t have to be expensive.”

Winin' in Waterbury

It's been a busy day at Seven Days... This just in from CORIN HIRSCH [10.18.11] at Seven Days

Side Dishes: Cork Wine Bar & Market opens in Waterbury

Waterbury’s 1 Stowe Street address has seen its share of culinary action lately. First Blackback Pub and Fly Shop merged with Stebu  Sushi. Now, upstairs from Blackback, the village has gained a wine mecca, Cork Wine Bar & Market.

The spacious Cork is the brainchild of Stowe native Danielle Nichols, 34, who spent the last 10 years as a traveling ski coach based on the West Coast. In many of the places she visited — Australia, New Zealand, Chile and Austria among them — Nichols cultivated her love for first-class wines, which eventually blossomed into the idea of a wine bar. “I loved the concept, and I thought it would be a cool thing to do in Vermont,” says Nichols, who moved back to her home turf this year. Read the complete story here.