St. Helena’s Press Welcomes A Most Appropriate New Chef
It’s a most apropos choice, given that Blue Hill is renowned for its almost painstaking use of locally grown ingredients, including those from its own farms, and the fact that Press is very much a root-to-shoot, nose-to-tail steakhouse with the bulk of its provisions coming from its 13-acre Rudd Farms and Chef’s Garden.
In Kunk’s hands, the food at Press embodies the garden even more so now, as evidenced by my recent dinner there when I was invited in to dine as a guest of the restaurant. My dinner was a week ago, prior to last Sunday’s 6.0 earthquake in Napa. Fortunately, no damage occurred at Press, which is operating as usual.
Press was founded by Wine Country mover-and-shaker Leslie Rudd, who also owns Rudd Oakville Estate and Dean & DeLuca. The graceful restaurant was designed by Howard Backen, who has been responsible for the look of the Restaurant at Meadowood in St. Helena, Archetype in St. Helena, Kokkari in San Francisco, and a slew of premiere wineries including Harlan Estate, Ram’s Gate, Dana Estates and Bond Estates.
The soaring barn-like restaurant fills with natural light, lending a casual but elegant ambiance. With an old-fashioned, hand-crank grape press as its logo, Press takes wine seriously. There are more than 1,500 Napa Valley selections, with a specialization in Cabernet Sauvignon, that you can thumb through on an electronic tablet. Or just put your hands in Sommelier Angela Stem’s hands. After all, with a surname like that, how can you go wrong?
In fact, she introduced me to my new favorite summer sip: 2013 “Annia” Massican, a beautiful, crisp blend of Chardonnay, Tocai Friulano and Ribolla Gialla that tastes of citrus and peaches with a good dose of minerality.
At Press, appetizers are priced from $12 to $185 (for a grand seafood platter); entrees run $29 to $120 (for a 35-ounce cote de boeuf for two). My husband and I put ourselves in Chef Kunk’s hands, letting him serve us whatever he pleased as he chose items that highlighted not only the regular menu, but the bar menu, as well.
A basket of pillowy brioche, gougeres and skinny breadsticks were impossible to resist. That was followed by a platter of ice that held whole radishes picked fresh from the garden, their tops still attached, along with both an avocado and a cucumber sorrel cream to dunk them in. Also nestled on the ice were two Simpson Bay oysters from Alaska. Remove their top shells to reveal a melon mignonette that was lively with acidity but also beckoned with a subtle musky sweetness. Additionally, there were two small glasses of tomato water spiked with pepper. It looked delicate, but boasted big tomato flavor and quite a kick of spiciness.
Bresaola — thin, air-dried, salted slices of beef — were rolled up cigar-style and hid a farm-house egg inside. You taste the richness and saltiness of the beef that’s tempered by the creaminess of the soft egg.
Deviled eggs gribiche lay on a bed of fried kale and toasted quinoa, so that after you downed the creamy, bacon-topped eggs, you could eat the crisp kale and quinoa with your fingers like popcorn.
Cucumber gazpacho was slightly chunky in texture with onions, radishes and sprays of fried dill on top. In fact, 90 percent of the ingredients in that chilled soup came from the restaurant’s gardens. It was quenching, and as my husband joked, “like drinking a dill pickle.”
The string bean salad is something I want to try to recreate at home. I’d never have thought of pairing string beans with cantaloupe, but they work beautifully together, especially when bridged with a rich egg yolk-fortified lemon vinaigrette with chopped almonds.
Edge Hill heirloom tomatoes were served simply with purslane, fresh peaches and creamy goat cheese to let their sensational flavor shine on their own.
Press buys its 14-ounce rib eye from Bryan Flannery, a San Francisco meat distributor, who sources his meat from retired dairy cattle because he believes they have superior flavor and marbling. The meat is dry-aged for 28 days, and Press gets the best of the best of it, our server explained. There’s no denying it’s a great piece of beef, the kind that cuts like butter and coats your entire mouth with a beefy-minerality from the get-go. Press offers a choice of sauces at an extra cost to go with the beef, including chimichurri and bernaise. But with beef this good, and seasoned well with a salty crust, you really don’t need anything else on it.
Accompanying the steak was Mexican-style sweet corn that had been grilled, taken off the cob, and flavored with herbs, pickled jalapeno and house-made farmers cheese. Additionally, there was a zucchini “steak,” which had been sauteed, grilled and sliced over a bed of succotash and creamy corn pudding. The humble zucchini never had it so fine.
The dish that was truly genius was the carrot “hot dog.” Nope, it’s not vegetarian, though it does feature a whole sauteed orange carrot snuggled inside a grilled bun. It’s topped with hearty goat chili made from an animal that Press bought from the Napa Valley County Fair 4-H to show its support. The “hot dog” is $12 on the bar menu and it’s as delicious as it is fun. It tastes so meaty that you almost think you are eating an actual hot dog. The carrot lends a playful sweetness almost like ketchup would. Kids will love this, as will most any adult.
Strawberry shortcake lovers will rejoice in the one here that’s a mile-high with fresh berries, a thick and tender shortcake, rhubarb compote and plenty of decadent clotted cream.
The Scharffen Berger souffle gets adorned with a chocolate disk imprinted with the Press logo that melts when the server pours a pitcher of creme anglaise over it. The souffle is light, fluffy and intensely chocolate-y. A scoop of vanilla ice cream gives the palate a break before you dig into another spoonful of deep chocolate bliss.
At Press, it’s all about California farmhouse cooking that’s elevated yet still familiar enough. In Wine Country, it’s the kind of food worth toasting.
After dinner, we retired to the Wydown Hotel in St. Helena, which hosted us for the evening. The snazzy boutique hotel is conveniently located right on Main Street. Owner Mark Hoffmeister named it after the tree-lined Wydown Boulevard in his hometown of St. Louis.
The artsy lobby is decorated with striking photographs and an unusual pyramid-like upholstered chair. There’s even a jigsaw puzzle in progress that you can amuse yourself with.
Our corner room, which overlooked the main drag, was chic and modern looking with a two-person leather chair perfect for curling up in for some late-night reading. The bathroom was nicely outfitted with L’Occitane bath products. You can help yourself to cans of sparkling water or artisan sodas in the room’s fridge for no extra charge, too.
The hotel is just yards away from the fire station, so be prepared to hear the station alarm go off now and then. It’s not annoying, but ear plugs are a must-pack if you are a light sleeper.
There is no room service at the hotel, but the iconic Model Bakery is just a block away. So, it’s only a quick stroll to wake up to some of the best English muffins or Morning Glory muffins around.
More St. Helena Dining: Bar Terra