Category Archives: Great Finds

Dining Outside In the Napa Valley at Press

Swordfish gets smoked so it's silky and reminiscent in taste of pastrami -- at Press.
Swordfish gets smoked so it’s silky and reminiscent in taste of pastrami — 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.

Dine in or out at Press.
Dine in or out at Press.

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.

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Where I’ve Been Getting Takeout of Late, Part 32

The mixed grill plate of chicken and lamb from Athena Grill.
The mixed grill plate of chicken and lamb from Athena Grill.

Athena Grill, Santa Clara

It would be understandable if you thought you’d gotten lost while trying to get to Athena Grill in Santa Clara. Surrounded by low-slung industrial buildings, it doesn’t look at all like a neighborhood where you’d find a restaurant of any sort.

But this casual, family-owned Greek restaurant has been drawing a loyal following to this spot for the past 19 years.

It’s the type of simple, oregano-fragrant food in ample portions that you picture yourself enjoying at an outdoor cafe overlooking the Aegean Sea. When you get the food to-go, just be prepared to work up an appetite, inhaling the heady garlic the whole way home.

It’s one of the few places you’ll find smelt ($11.95). These tiny fish, lightly breaded and fried, are about the size of the french fries they come with. In fact, you may have trouble distinguishing the two at first glance. Squeeze on some lemon juice and dunk into the container of skordalia, a creamy potato garlic dip. They’re mild tasting, and edible in their entirety.

Fried smelt and fries (back), and grilled sardines with garlic fries (front).
Fried smelt and fries (back), and grilled sardines with garlic fries (front).

If larger fishes are more your speed, go for the grilled sardines mezes ($12.95). They are marinated in olive oil, garlic and lemon before getting crisped on the grill. You have to debone them yourself. But that’s easy enough to do. They are tender, slightly stronger in taste with their rich oil, and just a joy to dig into.

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Step Up Your Grill Game With Stateline Road BBQ Products From A Pedigreed Chef

Grilled steak and mushrooms get elevated with Stateline Road BBQ Truffle Sauce.
Grilled steak and mushrooms get elevated with Stateline Road BBQ Truffle Sauce.

When you get samples in the mail of new barbecue products from a chef who’s cooked at Michelin three-starred Alinea and rose to executive sous chef at Thomas Keller’s Bouchon in Yountville, you know you’re in for something special.

Such was the case when I unboxed the goods from Chef Darryl Bell, Jr., whose Stateline Road BBQ products have already garnered a following. Bell started tinkering with his barbecue sauce while working at Bouchon, where he’d use it to spiff up staff meals, much to his co-workers’ delight. When he got up the nerve to let Keller try it, the renowned chef was so impressed that he put it on his menus served aboard Seabourn luxury cruise ships.

Bell, now chef de cuisine at Press in St. Helena, was born and raised in Kansas City, so he knows barbecue inside and out. In fact, Stateline Road BBQ is named for the major thoroughfare that divides Kansas City, MO and Kansas City, KC, a region that’s a hotbed for some of the country’s best barbecue joints.

Stateline Road BBQ's line of products.
Stateline Road BBQ’s line of products.

You can purchase Stateline Road BBQ products on its web site. In spring 2022, though, it’ll be easier to get your hands on them when Northern California Whole Foods stores start carrying them.

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Where I’ve Been Getting Takeout of Late, Part 31

Cuban pork-plantain enchiladas from Aqui.
Cuban pork-plantain enchiladas from Aqui.

Aqui, San Jose, Campbell, Cupertino

Long before certain chefs in Southern California and on the East Coast were gaining fame for stuffing tacos and burritos with all manner of global ingredients, there was Aqui.

It was a forerunner to the novelty of folding flour tortillas around a filling of Thai peanut saucy chicken or tangy goat cheese to create something anew.

It opened way back in 1994 in San Jose’s Willow Glen neighborhood. I remember going there in the late ’90s, where no matter if it was lunch or dinner, you’d have to time it just right or risk not getting a table. Today, Aqui is not only still going strong, but it now boasts five locations in the South Bay.

It’s easy to see why it’s so popular. It’s fun, vibrant California-ized Mexican-inspired food in generous portions. Order the avocado dip ($7.49), and you’ll get enough tortilla chips to feed four handily, along with salsa fresca on the side for good measure. The avocado dip is essentially a chunk guacamole with habanero, lime, and cilantro. The menu says there’s mango in it, but it’s not readily detectable. The chips are very crisp and have a great rustic corn taste.

The Cuban pork enchiladas ($12.49) come three to an order, along with black beans and crunchy, mild tasting Aqui slaw. The enchiladas are filled with ground pork that’s been cooked with mashed plaintains, giving it a nice sweetness, before being napped with a red, nutty tasting achiote sauce. Squiggles of sour cream decorate the top.

Don't miss the flourless chocolate cake.
Don’t miss the flourless chocolate cake.

On the lighter side, the Southwest Caesar ($9.49) was a kaleidoscope of color with yellow, purple and red fried tortilla strips all over the top. It’s a simple mix of crunchy Romaine, pumpkin seeds, black beans and grilled corn, done up with a flourish of Asiago cheese, but really hits the spot.

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Discover The Unsweetened Tooth

Would you believe these decadent peanut butter mousse brownies have no sugar added to them?
Would you believe these decadent peanut butter mousse brownies have no sugar added to them?

Those peanut butter mousse brownies above are everything you expect — decadently rich, deeply fudgy, and loaded with irresistible sweet-salty, smooth peanut-butter goodness.

But they also lack something surprising — added sugar.

They are the creation of a unique Seattle bakery, The Unsweetened Tooth. As the name implies, this bake-to-order shop makes treats with no added sugar. Yet, they taste every bit as satisfying as their conventional counterparts — and minus the unpleasant aftertaste of so many sugar substitutes such as Stevia.

The bakery was started by Jude Sharp, who worked as an engineer in the tech industry in Silicon Valley with her fellow engineer husband, for years. But a health scare put her on a different path. After learning that she might become diabetic and lose her sight if she didn’t drastically change her dietary habits, she decided to give up sugar, and lost 100 pounds in the process.

Using her engineering know-how and love for tinkering, she built a commercial kitchen, and started coming up with no-sugar recipes after the couple moved to Washington state. In 2016, she launched The Unsweetened Tooth there.

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