Steve Schimoler stands in the center of Crop Rocks and spins like a turntable to show off his tricked-out pub on the Flats East Bank.
"Everyone says I have the best man cave of anyone they know," he says. "It's unbelievable, the toys we have."
A growing collection of 24,000 records — complements of former Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum president and CEO Terry Stewart — lines two walls of floor-to-ceiling library shelves and covers the 50-foot bar top with classics from AC/DC, the Eurythmics and Simon and Garfunkel.
A giant speaker near the DJ booth is disguised as a 10-foot WMMS transistor radio, while hippie-fied skeletons have seemingly parked a blue Volkswagen mini bus outside.
Crop Rocks' sound system of rare, vintage McIntosh amplifiers pumps out a party atmosphere reminiscent of the early '90s Flats — even when tempered with the sophistication that's a hallmark of Schimoler's other restaurants.
It's all part of a harmonious power trio of a gastropub, concert hall (On Air Studio) and Asian bistro (Crop Sticks) staged along the Cuyahoga River.
Opened over last Labor Day weekend, the unusual division of spaces gives Schimoler the chance to have it all. Flanking one side of the intimate On Air concert venue, Crop Sticks and Crop Rocks share one 80-foot-long kitchen linked behind the dining rooms. But that's pretty much where the similarities end.
"They really are two different experiences," Schimoler says, despite their physical connection.
The 150-seat Crop Rocks is brimming with rock 'n' roll tchotchkes and equipped with a sound booth where you'll often find guest DJs or Schimoler himself spinning records. It represents an exciting new chapter for the chef, who says he's always wanted to own a bar but has until now focused exclusively on "serious restaurants."
Outwardly it's fun. But it's also clear from the service and the food that Schimoler is still quite serious about his new restaurant.
"All of the culinary influence of me being a chef for 30 years is not lost in the fact that we're doing really good, fun bar food," he says. "And having fun with the names."
Which are not only clever, they're also spot-on descriptions of each dish. Take the Bonethugs and Hominy ($23), a plate of cherry chipotle-glazed ribs served with white hominy grits and wilted greens, or Marrakech Express ($12) pita stuffed with house-made falafel, lettuce, tomato, onion and cucumber. It's stuff you won't find at bars in town, which typically load their menus with fried appetizers, overloaded burgers and finger foods that encourage imbibing over gustatory exploration.
Fork-and-knife entrees, while generally leaning toward crowd-pleasing or comfort-food combos, are still marked by Schimoler's attention to balance, freshness of ingredients and practiced consistency — hallmarks of his strong roots in product development for the likes of Nestle.
Several solid vegetarian options, such as the earthy Beet It salad ($11), hit notes well above the staple roasted veggie wrap with cheese. Likewise, even familiar sandwiches such as the Tangled Up in Blue ($14) cheese-steak go beyond the norm with thoughtful and textural elements, including delicate shaved rib-eye and crisp fried onions.
True to the Crop reputation, any choice on the menu is a safe bet, but we're particularly fond of the Soul Kitchen ($17), two flattened, breaded and fried chicken breasts served with fluffy herb waffles, wilted greens and a spicy maple demi-glace longtime diners may recognize from other Crop menus.
"The best sign of a menu to me is if I personally have a hard time figuring out what I want that night," he says. "I have a hard time deciding, and that's for me a really good sign."
Across the hall at Crop Sticks, the difficulty of narrowing your best options is the same, even if everything else is different: walls the color of green tea, delicate rice paper accents, plush decorative rugs and what look like ancient Asian artifacts.
"On a Friday night when it's jumping and crazy [in Crop Rocks] ... you walk into the other room, it's like going into this whole other Zen universe," Schimoler says. "It's calm, it's quiet, it's Zen. It's a different vibe."
Tighter and more delineated, the Crop Sticks menu is divided into starters, soups, sides, sushi, salads, noodle entrees and signature plates, each with a handful of options. Daily sushi specials are offered tableside.
Just don't expect an authentic Asian experience. The sashimi is often accompanied by creative flavor enhancers such as shaved cucumber, charred orange and yuzu citrus juice with salmon or shaved shishito and lime with tuna, and noodle dishes incorporate decidedly non-Asian ingredients such as Parmesan cheese or pappardelle pasta.
It may sound unusual, but the Crop beef udon noodle bowl with basil and Parmesan cheese ($18) converted us after debuting at Crop Kitchen a year and a half ago.
While it's tempting to order it again at Crop Sticks, there are more standouts to try such as the Korean barbecue short rib ($29) served with coconut rice and kimchee or the crispy basil duck ($29) with black rice and grilled bok choy, which Schimoler counts among his favorites.
"I think I've always done a great job of bringing a lot of those [Asian] flavors into my style of cooking, which is fun and kind of irreverent, nontraditional," says Schimoler. "I know we can put out some kick-ass, Asian-inspired food that have the Crop tenants of our technique and our robust flavors. ... For us, it's a fun playground."
That carries over to Schimoler's bar service. Strong, complex Tiki drinks join the chef's culinary-inspired cocktails. Just one Typhoon ($10), with a blend of three rums, fresh passion fruit juice and a hint of cherry sweetness, will knock you out if you're not careful —which is why the Tiki selections are, at least on paper, limited to two per guest.
Crop Sticks: 1059 Old River Road, Cleveland, 216-902-7110, cropsticks.com, Mon-Wed 5-10 p.m., Thu-Sat 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m., Sun 5-9 p.m.
TRY THIS: Once you have Schimoler's real-deal Crop Sticks appetizers, you may never order the takeout versions again. Our favorites are the crispy, savory chicken egg rolls ($9 for two large rolls) with Hong Kong dipping sauce, a runny, sweet-and-sour redo on that ubiquitous syrupy orange duck sauce.
GOOD TO KNOW: Expect Crop Rocks to be bumping on Friday and Saturday nights, when guest DJs spin records from the restaurant's vast collection of vinyls. Go ahead and make a request, chances are pretty good your favorite tune is somewhere in the 24,000-deep album stacks.