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