Dining Outside In the Napa Valley at Press
Last week, I drove to the Napa Valley, which may not seem remarkable in and of itself until you realize it was my first trip there in 16 months.
Visiting Wine Country has always felt as soothing as a vacation — even when I was there for work. Now, after being cooped up for days on end during a pandemic, it seems even more exhilarating.
It was also my first time in as long dining at a fine-dining restaurant — albeit outdoors. I couldn’t have picked a better place than Press, where I had been invited in as a guest to check out the new offerings by an impressive new team now in place at this venerable dining destination owned by the influential Rudd family.
Executive Chef Philip Tessier oversaw a kitchen remodel and transitioned the restaurant away from a steakhouse to more nuanced modern American fare with lighter, brighter, seasonal flair. If his name is familiar, it’s likely from his time in the kitchens at The French Laundry in Yountville and Per Se in New York, as well as for his headline-making turn as the first American chef to reach the podium at the Bocuse d’Or international competition, garnering a silver medal.
Tessier has recruited two fellow Thomas Keller restaurant alums: Chef de Cuisine Darryl Bell, former executive sous chef at Bouchon Bistro in Yountville, who also has his own line of barbecue sauces and rubs at Stateline Road BBQ; and Master Sommelier Vincent Morrow, whose impressive experience stretches from The French Laundry to Gary Danko, Benu, and One65, all in San Francisco. The front of the house is manned by General Manager Cole Mathers, formerly of Gary Danko restaurant.
If you need any affirmation that people are flocking to Wine Country again, consider the fact that during the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, Press served more than 350 diners.
With tables outside both at the front of the restaurant and at the rear, complete with fireplace and fire pit, Press has ample seating for those who still prefer to dine outdoors.
Shortly after we were seated, an amuse arrived: glistening cubes of snapper tartare with fresh strawberries, drizzled with Jimmy Nardello chili oil, and garnished with a slice of juicy green almond. It was a beautiful little treat. Who would have ever thought strawberries and raw fish would go together so well. But the berries only served to accent the natural sweetness of the fish.
Cornbread ($10) is baked to order here, and worth the short wait. It comes out in a cast iron pan, hot to the touch. This is by far the fluffiest corn bread I’ve ever had. It doesn’t even possess the usual slight graininess you get from corn meal. Instead, it’s practically cake-like. Tiny bits of Benton’s bacon add a pronounced smokiness. To gild the lily, the corn bread comes with whipped black truffle butter to slather on.
I couldn’t wait to dive into the half-dozen Kusshi oysters ($24), my first on the half shell since lockdown, as raw oysters aren’t necessarily something you automatically think of for takeout. And these are definitely not to-go friendly, not with their horseradish foam that make the bivalves look like they’re getting a fancy shampoo treatment. The whipped, aerated horseradish still provides that sharp bite we all love, but doesn’t overwhelm the palate as much, letting you still enjoy the sweet brininess of the oyster with a hidden dice of refreshing cucumber underneath.
Beautiful presentations continue with the ricotta gnudi ($20), individually wrapped in the green and orange of squash blossoms like a special gift from nature. A clear broth is poured over at the table, a consomme that surprises with its deep taste of nutty Parmesan. The gnudi, themselves, are soft, supple, and nearly souffle-like.
Black truffle makes another appearance in a thick, earthy mole brushed onto very tender charred octopus ($22). Alongside is the most refined looking potato salad — with the tubers cut into precise tiny dice, and not a smushed one among them.
My entree of smoked swordfish ($42) is destined to come off the menu soon with the changing of the seasons. If it ever comes back, it’s worth ordering. The usually meaty fish takes on a nice silkiness and richness from the smoking, as well as incredible flavor akin to pastrami that’s completed with mustard seeds dappled on tableside. The preserved cabbage alongside was full of tang.
The 35-day-aged New York strip ($65) is garnished with a vibrant, garlicky ramp salsa verde. The caramelized torpedo onion on the plate holds another wonder — it’s stuffed with braised short rib meat. For my husband, aka Meat Boy, it proved a dish with double the pleasure.
The accompanying side of french fries was presented like Lincoln logs, with each crisp baton stacked artfully on top of one another, along with shatteringly crisp broccolini on the plate. The potatoes resembled fries with their crisp, deeply golden exteriors. But their insides ate like the best tater tot, with the soft, malleable texture of grated potatoes. A marvel.
Press started experimenting with lees from Dalla Valle Vineyards in much the same way that others are upcycling whey from cheese-making or sourdough cast-off from starters. In this case, the lees or sediment of spent yeast cells after wine fermentation were used in a sorbet served as an intermezzo with a plump mulberry on top. The purple sorbet was refreshing and delicate. It didn’t taste quite of the one-note sweetness of grapes nor fully of wine but rather of something distinctly in between the two.
The chocolate profiterole ($13) sports a crackling top with bruleed banana slices; a thick, whipped banana cream; and a cascade of nocino butterscotch with the walnut liqueur adding a touch of toasty nuttiness.
For a final bite, break into the Sicilian pistachio-dusted pavlova ($13) to discover a sweet-tangy passion fruit curd as bright as sunshine.
Wine Country is roaring back. And I couldn’t be more thrilled to return.