Old-fashioned popcorn is as Americana as you can get. But with bright strips of sauteed peppers and onions, wilting leaves of peppery arugula, a generous pinch of micro cilantro and a thin drizzle of orange miso dressing, Crop Kitchen chef and partner Matthew Anderson turns it into an Asian-inspired treat.
At the casual offshoot of chef Steve Schimoler's Crop Bistro and Bar, a mashup of sushi and sashimi, fried chicken sandwiches, shishito peppers and wedge salads may seem to have competing interests. Sometimes the dishes lean wholly East or West, other times they meet in the middle such as the culture-connecting popcorn.
It's a delicate dance to make it all work — one that Anderson embraces.
"My job is to figure out how to not make it weird," says the chef who previously worked as a managing partner and executive chef at Umami Asian Kitchen for six years. "Like, That's strange. I got a burger and sushi. But this is why it works, and this is why we're doing what we're doing."
For longtime fans of Schimoler's Ohio City hot spot, Anderson's heavy influence on this new venture may come as a surprise. Schimoler has been an architect of Cleveland's rise as a foodie destination for nearly a decade, while Anderson is what food writers and restaurateurs would call up-and-coming.
But on a fundamental level, their partnership makes sense.
Both Schimoler and Anderson are New England natives who met in the late '90s in Vermont, where the former owned a restaurant and food consulting business and the latter was a student at the New England Culinary Institute.
"We had culinary students as volunteers, and Matt actually worked at two different parties at my house," says Schimoler. "We didn't connect the dots until years later, when we were both here."
In the food industry since his early 20s, Schimoler has owned five restaurants in New York and Vermont, and has founded or managed two product development companies. A job as director of innovation and development at Nestle brought him to town a decade ago.
This R&D background has translated to very studied and careful menus. He experiments, tweaks and nudges until they're perfect and perfectly unusual (though he leaves room for improvisation, such as with Crop Kitchen's blackboard specials, which recently included a swordfish steak over Brussels sprouts slaw for $24).
Anderson, meanwhile, grew up in New Hampshire then lived and worked in Washington, D.C., for a little less than a decade. He learned the art of sushi-making by
observing chef Frank Morrales and practicing the techniques on his own time and dime.
"It totally changed the way I thought about food," he says. "More than five items on a plate and [Morrales would say], 'Dude, something's got to go. Where are we going with this? Does it make sense?' "
Asian cooking has always intrigued him, he explains, because the ingredients are straightforward. "Simplicity is the hardest thing, because there's nowhere to hide," he says. "The flavors have to be clean, they have to be bright, they have to be spot on."
The timing of his partnership at Crop Kitchen worked out well for both chefs, as Schimoler was looking for a responsible, invested chef who would allow him to focus on managing his restaurants from the top down, while Anderson wanted a larger space and more direct input.
So while their ethnic influences might span the globe, their origins, culinary precision and reliance on fresh ingredients have kept the two on the same menu page from the start.
Located in one of the cornerstone retail spaces lining Euclid Avenue in the Uptown neighborhood, the huge 6,000-square-foot space was once home to Accent, the short-lived restaurant by Sasa's Scott Kim.
Originally black and red and very sleek, the restaurant has been retrofitted with murals of fruits and vegetables, blond wood and chalkboards in an attempt at agrarian comfort. Cavernous 20-foot ceilings are still stamped with the previous tenant's moniker, while ultramodern floor-to-ceiling plate glass windows are at odds with the newer rustic-cozy elements. While that means it won't necessarily win our nod for best decor, it is perhaps the most outwardly authentic combination of the two partners' culinary styles.
The appetizers section includes the popular Crop Bistro and Bar cherry bombs ($6 for one or $10 for two), a tomato stuffed with veggies and goat cheese, wrapped in phyllo dough and served with roasted tomato sauce. It's tangy, delicately sweet and crispy, and definitely Mediterranean. You'll also find that Asian-leaning popcorn ($6), a riff on the balsamic popcorn salad from the bistro made with basil, arugula, sun-dried tomatoes, balsamic vinaigrette and Asiago.
Yet a green tea noodle dish ($6), featuring chilled wheat noodles tossed with peanut sauce, shredded carrot, scallion and micro cilantro, is fresh, slightly creamy and very Thai-inspired.
There's a classic wedge salad ($9), another bistro favorite, made with soft butter lettuce, roasted tomatoes and smoky bacon; a double burger ($12) that went through weeks of testing to achieve optimum texture and flavor; and an addictive udon noodle bowl ($16) made with Anderson's signature dashi broth, chewy noodles and braised Ohio beef.
Because the best sushi and sashimi relies on the clean flavors of incredibly fresh fish, you'll never see a printed menu of rolls here. Instead, Anderson relies on the advice of his Hawaiian fish suppliers, asking them, "What can you get to me tomorrow? What looks the best? What just came out of the water?"
Expect the unexpected: You might find tuna and salmon one night, octopus and marlin another.
Taken as a whole, the result is something rare that bridges the ultra-casual and the formal, a place where you can get a steak or a burger, where you can order comfort food or venture outside your comfort zone. It's both a neighborhood haunt and a destination.
"I think our styles have meshed really well," Schimoler says. "There's a certain sophistication to some of the dishes we see at Crop Kitchen that remind you of Crop Bistro, and yet there's some stuff that's completely just signature now to Crop Kitchen."
When You Go
11460 Uptown Ave., Cleveland, 216-696-2767, cropkitchen.com, Mon-Thu 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m., Fri 11:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m., Sat 5 p.m.-10:30 p.m.
Try This: Squeeze a wedge of lime over the blistered shishito pepper appetizer ($6) and dip each roasted pod into the accompanying ginger salt. It's the perfect size for snacking, and the hint of heat and zing of citrus is surprisingly balanced for so few ingredients.
Good to Know: Monday through Friday from 3:30 to 6:30 p.m., Crop Kitchen gets happy with $5 sushi rolls, $6 burgers and $7 seasonal libations, often crafted with fresh, local ingredients and the restaurant's house-made sodas
Learning to make sushi at home takes patience and practice.
Sushi — you've ordered it at restaurants, you love it, now you want to make it at home. Crop Kitchen chef and partner Matt Anderson gives us his tips on DIY rolls, with one caveat: "Unless you're really dedicated, you're going to get frustrated," he says. "I made some of the most god-awful, ugly rolls for three months straight." Start with a sushi mat ($1.99 at Park to Shop in AsiaTown) and a razor-sharp knife. The rest is just practice.
First, the Rice
Although most people think fish is the most important part of sushi, any expert will tell you it's all about the rice. "It's not hard," Anderson says. "But there are a lot of ways to screw it up, because there are so many variables."
Use this old Chinese method for perfectly cooked short grain rice: Touch the bottom of a heavy-bottom pot with the tip of your finger. Pour in rice until the top level reaches your first knuckle, then add water up to your second knuckle. Turn it up to a simmer, cover with foil and a lid to keep the moisture in, then the heat very low and cook for 20 minutes. Remove from heat and let it sit for 10 minutes. "I know that sounds stupid, but it works," he says. "No matter how much I make, it's perfect."
Season with a mixture of rice wine vinegar, sugar and tamari (about 1 teaspoon sugar, 1 teaspoon tamari and 1/2 cup rice wine vinegar for every 5 cups cooked rice). "It should have some acid and a little bit of sweetness," Anderson says. "Otherwise the rice just tastes like mushy rice."
Next, the Nori
Nori, the green sheets of edible seaweed that hold sushi rolls together, are best lightly toasted over open flame. The process heightens the taste and crisps the texture. "Sushi is all about contrasting: Soft rice on the outside and that crunch, almost, on the roll," says Anderson. "That's the nori."
Nori has two sides, as well as lines for guidance. "One side is shiny, and one side is matte," he says. Place the shiny-side down on the sushi mat. The glossy side looks better for presentation, and the matte side helps to grip the grains of rice. (If you want an inside-out roll, with rice on the outside, line your mat with plastic wrap first.)
With wet hands, spread the rice over the paper, stopping about two-thirds of the way up to allow for overlap. "The rice should be one layer, the thickness of a grain of rice," Anderson advises. "Sushi should be one bite."
Then, the Fish
"Finding sashimi-quality fish at a grocery store is a little scary to me, for many reasons," Anderson laughs. He recommends cultivating a relationship with one fishmonger (he recommends Classic Seafood at the West Side Market), asking lots of questions and explaining that you're planning to make sushi. "Practice with crab and cooked shrimp until you've built that relationship."
Add, the Fillings
What you put inside your sushi roll will depend on your tastes and the type of protein you're using. Don't be afraid to experiment. Try pickled carrots, sliced cucumber, avocado or julienned daikon radish.
"It's all about balance and ratios," Anderson reiterates. "When you practice those knife skills and you can cut that cucumber the same size every time — that's the art of sushi."
Finally, to Finish
Roll the sushi parallel to your filling, using the mat to bring the edge over and applying even pressure along the length of the roll. Anderson rolls his sushi twice, tightening the roll and then wetting the end of the nori without rice so that it seals closed before turning the roll around and giving it one last pass. "Make sure it's tight and straight so you don't end up with something that looks like a pregnant snake," he laughs.
All that's left is slice and serve. It will take practice to achieve the restaurant-worthy roll that inspired you in the first place, but even ugly rolls taste good.