This is “You Gotta Try This,” The Bee’s series featuring one particular must-have dish at a local restaurant. Each featured dish is nominated by a reader. Got a menu item you want to shine some light on? Email reporter Benjy Egel at email@example.com.
The Press Bistro’s $11 grilled calamari appetizer has heavy Mediterranean influence, sources its primary ingredient from Mexico and draws background flavors from around the Sacramento area.
Like several other dishes on the menu, it’s the story – in part – of chef/owner David English’s well-traveled, wide-ranging culinary life.
Inspired by a clam, octopus and cannellini dish English once ate in northern Spain, it’s a relatively simple plate, and that’s the point. Most calamari comes deep-fried in bite-sized pieces, further masked by aioli or another dipping sauce. By grilling the squid and keeping it as a steak, English keeps the dish light while letting the moderately sweet meat’s natural flavor shine through.
“People appreciate that it’s lighter and you actually get to taste (the calamari). When you’re frying anything you’re not going to get essence of what it is,” English said. “I think it picks up the marinade really nice but doesn’t overwhelm it. I think it picks up the grill flavor really nice but doesn’t overwhelm it. There’s just something that works really well there.”
Calamari steaks are marinated overnight in grated garlic, lemon zest and Frate Sol extra virgin olive oil from Woodland, then salted and grilled for about a minute-and-a-half on each side and sliced thin. Overcook calamari and it turns dry and chewy; leave it raw and there’s a gummy texture, not to mention a health risk. When done right, as The Press Bistro’s is, it’s tender enough to practically melt in customers’ mouths while they’re chewing.
Cooks whip cannellini beans doused in lemon juice and olive oil together with sauteed leeks, fennel and white onions, and top with a mix of parsley, chives and thyme. The cannellini mixture and calamari are then layered on top of baby arugula and finished with more olive oil and lemon juice. The onions, leeks, fennel, cannellini and arugula are all sourced from local farms, English said.
The Press Bistro opened shortly after fellow farm-to-fork movement veterans Magpie, Grange and Hawks in 2010, and the calamari has been a menu fixture the whole time, though its accompanying salad used to rotate seasonally. English only made the cannellini a permanent part of the dish after a few years’ sales convinced him the white beans wouldn’t turn Sacramento customers off.
A Davis High School alumnus, the tall, wiry English fell in love with kitchens’ camaraderie and craziness during his first cooking job in New Orleans after college. He discovered cooking could be an avenue to see the world along the way, and built himself a nomadic resume that stands out even among other itinerant chefs.
From 1996 to 2004, English lived and cooked in Napa, San Francisco, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Spain, France, Maine, Wisconsin and Florida before returning to New Orleans for his first executive chef job. My New Orleans named him the city’s best new chef for his work transforming a restaurant called Cobalt into a critical darling with a full dining room most nights.
Then Hurricane Katrina hit and Cobalt was wiped off the map. English moved back to San Francisco and eventually made his way to Sacramento and Ella Dining Room & Bar, where he stayed for about a year-and-a-half before opening The Press Bistro.
Modesty is the veteran chef’s style; when asked about his job at Ella, he simply replied, “I just helped open it.” He was the restaurant’s executive chef. The Press Bistro has never paid for any sort of marketing in its nine years and rarely does promotions, as English prefers to let people find it through word-of-mouth or write-ups such as a four-star 2015 review from former Bee critic Blair Anthony Robertson.
Unfortunately for Sacramento gastronomes, that modesty also means English harbors no dreams of being the next Randy Paragary or Randall Selland. He won’t open another restaurant as long as The Press Bistro s running, he said. One restaurant means English gets to be in the kitchen every night it’s open, and with a wife and two sons, anything more would be stretching himself too thin, he said.
“This is what we are, and this is where I am every night, so we’re going to give it our effort,” English said. “We’re going to try our very best each and every day, and that’s all we can do. If someone likes us that’s great, and if someone doesn’t, we’re still going to try to do our very best.”
The Press Bistro
1809 Capitol Ave., (916) 444-2566
Hours: 4 to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 4 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday