Food & Drink

Dining review: Skill, passion and polish found at The Press

King salmon is on the menu at The Press. Other entrees include a Bolognese lasagna, swordfish, and pork chop with collard greens. Among the desserts: chocolate lava cake.
King salmon is on the menu at The Press. Other entrees include a Bolognese lasagna, swordfish, and pork chop with collard greens. Among the desserts: chocolate lava cake. Bee staff

David English is a very meticulous, hands-on owner-chef, which is one of the reasons The Press bistro is so consistent.

He’s also skilled, thoughtful and passionate, which is why his bistro has become so good.

In the five years this midtown restaurant has been open, it has adjusted to the desires of its clientele by serving more large entrees and fewer tapas.

While English may have envisioned his place to be like the boisterous late-night tapas joints in Spain, the reality was that people in Sacramento weren’t necessarily used to eating that way, even if English’s small servings of potato croquettes and pumpkin and Parmesan arancini (breaded and deep-fried stuffed rice balls) are incredible, albeit brief, moments of nibbling.

Despite the tweaks in those early days, English’s overall vision has remained the same – serve superb but unfussy food with good wine and cocktails, and provide first-rate service in a setting that is lively and refined, yet as laid-back as you want it to be.

These days, I cannot think of another restaurant in this category and price point that’s doing it any better. From the sourcing of ingredients to the exquisite, always-dialed-in seasoning of the food, The Press has the quality-to-value ratio worked out just right.

This is the way a bistro is supposed to be, engaging and versatile and personable. You can come in for dinner and enjoy a wonderful entree like the short ribs with red wine sauce served over creamy polenta. You can drop by on a whim, grab a seat at the bar and have a small plate of pasta with a glass of wonderful wine, including the house red blend and the house white (an unoaked chardonnay).

And you can do something in between – order a bunch of plates from throughout the menu, nibble and share and repeat. The food is seasonal and local, and the presentations are classic but contemporary without ever seeming overly precious.

The large, open room with exposed rafters is urban and sophisticated. If anything, it might be a little too polished for what English has created. To the uninitiated, for instance, sizing up the architectural details makes you think “modern fine dining.”

That’s not The Press, as the menu prices testify. The main dishes are mostly in the low $20 range. The pastas are either $9 for a small serving or $18 for a full plate. The appetizers, including superb steamed mussels in a white wine butter sauce and the crispy pork belly with braised lentils and fennel, are all less than $10. The tapas are three for $10.

The Press’ short ribs in a red wine sauce is a classic bistro dish done well. It’s also an excellent value at $21. English doesn’t deconstruct it or sous vide it or reinvent it. It’s straightforward and absolutely delicious, with every component working in harmony – the braised beef is tender, the polenta is rich and the wine reduction is earthy with a touch of sweetness.

Same with the braised lamb shoulder ($22) served with mashed potatoes, carrots and turnips. English is more literal in his interpretation of bistro dining than some of his American counterparts who use “bistro” simply as a more interesting substitute for “restaurant.” English is always hammering away at value without skimping on the overall eating experience.

To do that, he opts for less expensive cuts of meat – lamb shoulder instead of rack of lamb, short ribs instead of prime rib, hangar steak rather than rib eye – and uses technique to deliver great texture and flavor. Braising is one traditional way of getting there. But he’s also adept at grilling. The pork chop with collard greens, bacon and a sweet potato puree felt like a very American bistro dish – bold yet refined, eclectic but balanced.

Readers might recall English as the opening chef at Ella Dining Room & Bar. His work earned the restaurant four stars in The Bee in 2007. At Ella in those early days, one of English’s most coveted dishes was the pappardelle with a lightly poached egg nesting on wide ribbons of pasta. You’d pierce the egg and watch the yolk ooze and meander, coating the noodles and melding with the sauce. The dish was so popular, it remained on the menu after English moved on.

Pappardelle is on the menu at The Press, but the egg is no longer offered. Instead, we get tender roasted mushrooms and a creamy Madeira sauce. It’s deceptively simple and delicious.

Bolognese lasagna is a tough dish to trot out in Sacramento, where Biba’s trademark 10-layer lasagna with meat sauce may be the most famous dish in town. English’s version is a worthy homage without trying to duplicate the iconic Biba dish. His blend of meat for the sauce is beef, prosciutto and bacon, which simmers for hours in a combination of veal stock and short rib stock. The key to the rich but lean mouthfeel is the Parmesan bechamel sauce, which coats the mouth with a tangy, gently salty note. And the deep flavors of the meat sauce build and linger with every bite.

The seafood dishes are also spotlight-worthy. Also priced in the low $20 range, they offer outstanding value, especially the swordfish with cauliflower, capers, oranges and a smattering of almonds for crunch.

Desserts are simple but done well, a marked improvement from the early days when I recall describing at least one offering as a waste of perfectly good sugar. The chocolate lava cake with ice cream and the pear and frangipani tart with whipped cream are both unpretentious and delightful.

The wine list offers an appealing balance of Old World and New World selections that work well with bistro food. In addition to the house wines ($6 each), the wines by the glass or bottle are available at various price points. Again, the emphasis on quality-meets-value is apparent. Further, English’s detail-oriented ways are apparent here, too. The red wines have just a touch of chill to them, as they are stored at 58 degrees rather than left sitting on the counter, getting warm and vinegary as they are at far too many restaurants.

Finally, the service pulls everything together. It is professional with just the right balance of personableness and polish. Consistency and attention to detail, rather than pizazz and inventiveness, are what make The Press one of the best, most versatile bistro experiences going.

Call The Bee’s Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. On Twitter, @Blarob.

The Press

1809 Capitol Ave.

Sacramento

(916) 444-2566

www.thepressbistro.com

Hours: 5-9 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday, and Sunday; 5-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Bar opens at 4 p.m. for drinks and tapas.

Beverage options: Full bar, including a very good wine list with plenty of styles available by the glass and bottle.

Vegetarian friendly: Yes.

Gluten-free options: Yes.

Noise level: Loud.

Ambiance: The modern dining room features plenty of urban-industrial elegance, with a large bar, a community table that seats 18 and plenty of seating for couples or small parties. The downside: When the room is at capacity, the acoustics are poor.

Overall (out of four stars)

Here’s a bistro where looks are deceiving. It is neither formal nor expensive, despite the feeling of refinement when you first walk in. With its array of classic bistro dishes done well, delicious tapas and eclectic small plates, The Press is operating at a high level. Owner-chef David English earned four stars in 2007, and he’s even more deserving now.

Food

Classic bistro dishes are made with quality ingredients, and technique is employed to make less expensive cuts of meat something superb. While some discerning diners might wonder where the cutting-edge stuff is, that’s not what chef English is about. Must-try dishes include an array of tapas – especially the amazing (and simple) potato croquettes and arancini – the braised beef short ribs over polenta, the pappardelle with roasted mushrooms, and the eight-layer Bolognese lasagna.

Service

The servers strike just the right tone of professional polish and casual friendliness so this bistro never feels stuffy. Knowledge of the food and wine is impressive. Attention to detail mirrors what we see with the kitchen.

Value

The menu is thoughtfully put together and, with the wine list, adds up to one of the best values in town. The tapas are three for $10. Appetizers are all less than $10 and main entrees are generally in the low $20s. The $6 house wine is a solid choice and the other wines by the glass or bottle are mostly good deals.

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