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Cox: Cocktails, wine, steak

  • Sous chef Zack Mutrux prepares a "Cowboy" rib-eye at PRESS Restaurant in St. Helena on Friday, October 18, 2013. (Conner Jay/The Press Democrat)

There are really only three things to order at Press, Leslie Rudd's restaurant in St. Helena — a cocktail, a steak, and a Napa Valley wine. Everything else is either beside the point or misses the point.

The point is to showcase Napa Valley's gorgeous wines — especially its reds — with the best steaks imaginable. The cocktail is to celebrate the meal.

The bartenders have perfected the exacting art of the cocktail. For example, the West Indies Swizzle mixes the rum of Martinique with that island's orange liqueur and pineapple gomme, which is simple syrup made silky and lush with dissolved gum Arabic. The ingredients are shaken and served over crushed ice, and each sip is like a breath of fresh Caribbean air.

Press Restaurant

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The wine list is programmed onto an iPad, which intrigues you with its pricing. Would someone really pay $150 for a half bottle of 2010 Kongsgaard "The Judge" Chardonnay?

Let's cut to the chase here and go right to the wine the Napa Valley is famous for: Cabernet Sauvignon. Most everything runs in the three-figures range, with a few wines at four figures. Also, historic wines abound. The 1961 Beaulieu Vineyards "Georges de la Tour Private Reserve" is $895. New wines are less expensive. Tim and Marcia Mondavi's 2010 Continuum, their venture atop Pritchard Hill, goes for $290, and for a bargain, there's the 1994 Barnett Vineyards Cab — always a voluptuous wine and this one a ripe 19 years old — for just $135. For those of us whose checkbooks can't haul that kind of water, 16 wines by the glass are offered, including, if you have the so-called English palate that prefers wine well-aged, a glass of 1998 Frog's Leap Cab for $22.

Which brings us to the steaks. Leslie Rudd has built his reputation as a businessman on luxury foods, wines and spirits. His family-owned group of quality restaurants and emporia includes the Oakville Grocery, Dean & DeLuca, Press restaurant, Rudd Oakville Estate winery, and more. So you might expect the steaks at Press to be wonderful. But you'd be wrong. Wonderful is an understatement. These steaks aren't from lean and grass-fed cows, they are prime steaks from pampered animals fattened on whatever goodies cattle experts know will produce the most flavorful and tender meat possible. This is beef as a sinful indulgence.

Our table ordered the USDA Prime Flatiron Steak ($33) from Brandt Farms in the San Joaquin Valley. This operation feeds the animals corn for a full year before slaughter, so the beef is well-marbled with fat for flavor and texture. Brandt uses no hormones or antibiotics, and turns the animals' manure into compost to fertilize the farm's fruits and other products. The 10-ounce steak arrived plump and beautifully crusted on the outside, perfectly cooked to a medium-rare pink throughout its inside. This was one of the least expensive steaks on the menu.

You can also order Wagyu beef, not only the Wagyu-Black Angus hybrid cattle grown by Snake River Farms in Boise, Idaho, but the real thing: Japanese Wagyu Kuroge beef from Kagoshima Prefecture. An 8-ounce New York strip cut goes for $125 and a 14-ounce ribeye for $195. You can also get an American-grown, 48-ounce Tomahawk Ribeye for $98. This hunk of meat comes with a rib bone so long you could use it to wreak havoc among your enemies.

But what about the rest of the menu? The Grilled Quail ($33?) was OK but its flavor was drowned in an elderberry jus and oversalted cheesy polenta. Kennebec Fries ($6) were properly fried but extremely oversalted. A stack of Crispy Onion Rings ($10) wasn't overly salty, but the rings were fat and chewy. Creamed Spinach ($7) missed several ways: no nutmeg, spinach leaves barely torn up, and stringy ribs left in, resulting in unpleasant eating.

A Chocolate Souffl?($18) was a failure. It didn't rise properly so the interior was like chocolate pudding. It shouldn't have left the kitchen.


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