It’s not easy to roast a perfect chicken. At restaurants, they’re often under-cooked, with an interior pink reminiscent of the color of bathroom tiles that were popular in the 50s. Or the chickens are over-cooked, drier than a saltine cracker.
And martinis? Well, rare is it, indeed, when a bar or restaurant gets them right, often utilizing good gin or vodka but really lousy, commercial vermouth.
So to find one restaurant serving both of these sensual pleasures with perfection – now that’s my kind of eatery!
And the good news (for me anyway), is that this Napa Valley restaurant is less than three miles from home with nary a traffic light between us.
The restaurant is Press, the brainchild of Leslie Rudd, who is starting to buy up anything that resembles a food emporium, or restaurant, in Napa Valley.
Years ago, Leslie bought Girard Winery at the intersection of the Silverado Trail and Oakville Crossroad and turned it into Rudd Vineyards & Winery, one of the valley’s most beautiful sites, where winemaker Charles Thomas produces exceptionally rich and textured Cabernets. Think voluptuous. Think silk.
Then Leslie bought the New York-based Dean & DeLuca food store and started to build the chain out across the U.S. The Napa Valley outlet, in St. Helena, is now the head store, even if New York produces $50 million more in annual revenue. Where Leslie lives, that is the head office.
Recently, adding to his food empire, Leslie bought the venerable Oakville Grocery, which I had tried to buy four years ago. The winning bidders at that time failed, over the last four years, to reverse the fortunes of the 125-year-old stagecoach stop and last month, they sold the remains to Leslie, who aims to revitalize the store and its brand, the blue bunny.
Last month, Leslie also bought IWA (International Wine Accessories) as well as one of my favorite breakfast/lunch places in the valley, Gordon’s, in Yountville. This guy appears to be on a buying tear.
Carol and I have been dining at Press nearly every Thursday for the last 12 months, preferring the bar tables where Eileen, or David, the barkeeps, make The Best Martini in Napa Valley.
And while many dishes on the menu have not been consistent this past year, the one constant in the place (other than Fred or Mary Constant, who make a killer Cab Franc and a killer Syrah on Diamond Mountain) has been the spit-roasted chicken. It is moist, tender, perfectly cooked.
If you are a zealous foodie and nominate the Chicken with Bread Salad at Zuni Café in San Francisco as “the best chicken in the Bay-area,” you can park that illusion at the door. Press’ spit-roasted chicken is far moister, far more flavorful and far more memorable. End of comparison.
Press serves organic, Fulton Valley chicken, free-range birds from Sonoma County. “We brine the chickens for a day, “says chef Dan Onedera, “then stuff them with a mixture of onion, garlic, lemon, sage and thyme.”
Additional kitchen tricks make these birds extra tasty, extra moist. Pay attention, by the way – these’ll be on the Final Exam.
“We gently pull the skin back and rub the chicken with a compound butter of herbes fines then spit-roast the chickens until they’re 75 percent done," says the chef.
“Then we generously brush the birds with duck fat – AHHH! The secret to everything tasty here! – and finish them in the oven.”
In my humble opinion, this is the best, tastiest, moistest chicken served in the Bay-area.
And speaking of martinis....
On the martini side, let’s get our biases out on the table. Or at the very least, out on the bar.
I used to think vodka made the perfect martini. Not any more. My good friend, David Smith, in San Francisco, who has had more martinis than James Bond, turned me on to gin in the past year and it truly does make a superior martini.
But that’s only half of it. You also need to mist your drink with a stunning vermouth. Most bars and commercial establishments fall into the lazy mode, opting to serve Martini & Rossi, or some other equally offensive industrial white wine that has more in common with jet fuel than it does with the subtle nuances that vermouth can add to the classic cocktail.
At Press, the house gin is another Leslie Rudd-owned product, Gin 209, made in San Francisco. It is a stunning gin, exhibiting savory and spice notes, a hint of cardamom pod, and an element of exotic five-spice.
That’s the first half of the equation to a successful martini, the gin. But in the give-take world of food, wherein we learn from each other how to improve dishes or drinks, a year ago, I gave David and Eileen, the bartenders, a tip: that a great dry vermouth was required to amplify their extraordinary house gin.
I mentioned that I had just written a story on Vya Vermouth (you can find it on these pages by inputting “Vya” in the search engine in the right-hand column) and that their Press martini cried out for it.
Vya is made at Quady Winery in the Sierra foothills. Owner Andrew Quady blends Orange Muscat and Colombard grapes, then flavors the juice with botanicals that are handpicked in the surrounding foothills. Talk about homemade vermouth. This is it.
At my behest, the bar team mixed the two clear, colorless fluids, Gin 209 and Vya Dry Vermouth, and in the process created an instant Napa Valley legend and classic cocktail – the valley’s Best Martini!
If you find a better martini in this valley, I want to know what it is. Same, too, for chicken. That’s what a blog’s for – to share information and increase the knowledge base for all visitors to the website, or to the valley.
In the meantime, until I learn otherwise, I am staking my claim: Press is the epicenter for Napa Valley’s Best Chicken and Best Martini!