It's never easy for a restaurant to reinvent itself. First impressions tend to get hard-wired into a diner's brain, and persuading people to adjust that opinion is no easier than unlearning how to ride a bike.
But the owners of Press Wine Bar in Tremont had devised a blueprint to do just that. In an attempt to better compete with their high-caliber restaurant neighbors, management planned to hire a new chef, debut an entirely new menu, and drop the "wine bar" designation.
"With everybody stepping up their game around town, and everything new opening up, our philosophy is to focus more on being a restaurant than being a wine bar," owner John Owen explained during the lead up to the transition. "We're really excited to have a complete culture change for us."
Only that's not really how it went down — at least not yet.
In place of Press 2.0, the restaurant feels more like Press 1.4, a pleasant new update but with numerous bugs still left to work out. While management did in fact bring in a skilled new chef, who soon after Labor Day unveiled an all-new menu, little else about the operation seems to have evolved along with it. Not only is the "wine bar" label still firmly affixed to the exterior of the building, the culture that has long supported it still lingers in the dining room.
Executive chef Matthew Spinner, a Clevelander who previously relocated to Chicago to work at high-end restaurants like Next and Sink|Swim, is attempting to elevate the food at this high-profile Tremont setting, but appears to be swimming upstream. From setting and service to staffing and supply, hiccups keep getting in the way of wonderful meals.
"Next-level" dining, I'm pretty certain, requires a staff of more than three, but that's the amount of warm bodies we counted on a recent Tuesday evening. One server, one bartender, one cook in the open kitchen. Our server, who doubled as the hostess, showed us to a wooden table that was, like every other table in the room, unset, lacking the sort of linens, silver, tableware and glassware that alert one to the fact that he or she is in a restaurant. At least we weren't seated at a high-top, which appear to outnumber regular tables.
Spinner's menu is peppered with cheffy terms like "gastrique" and "ver ju" and "guavasteen" and "sauce nantua," precisely the types of descriptions that require a knowledgeable, patient server to walk a diner through it all. That's not going to happen in a one- or two-server bar like Press. In a classic case of dump-and-run, we were left to our own devices to sort out the whats and hows of dishes like gulf prawns on sauce Romesco ($10), plated with an intriguing but mysterious dehydrated powder. Snacking on a clutch of variously flavored deviled eggs ($7) was a bit like playing Russian roulette.
A frugal operation favors running out of food over having to pitch it. I get it, but that translated into four or five dishes over two visits that were unavailable. In place of a seductive sounding but 86'ed shrimp & lobster pot pie we netted a delightful and refreshing crab salad ($11), the delicately sweet meat kissed by bright citrus, tossed with crisp slivers of fennel and gilded by fresh truffle.
It took me two visits to finally score Spinner's out-of-this-world halibut chop ($19), a bone-in collar cut that is loaded with exceedingly rich meat from the neck and belly. The silky textured flesh is complemented by a pair of equally smooth purees built from potatoes and parsnips.
In Spinner's hands, customarily homespun dishes like chicken paprikash ($17) and fried chicken ($17) get promoted to haute cuisine, with the latter benefitting from a ridiculously thin, crisp crust that kept the slender-sliced boneless meat juicy. Paired with sauerkraut, buttered egg noodles, crispy pork nuggets and slivered apples, the dish is like an entire German banquet on a single plate.
Not one to be restrained by place or time, Spinner turns out tasty renditions of a corny tamale ($13) on vegetarian hash topped with squash ribbons, and Korean-style chicken wings ($15) served with kimchi and two types of sauces. There are times when technique and presentation detract from the end product, like a duck breast ($17), likely sous vide, with an odd texture and zero crispy skin. Minimalistic plate presentations make dishes like the shrimp or deviled eggs feel cold and lonely.
Every visit to Press seems to be met with a new version of the menu. Dishes come and go, and even those that remain take on new form. That behavior, says Spinner, can be attributed to a little bit of nature and a little bit of nurture.
"I'm always changing menus, dishes and preparations — it's how I am," says Spinner. "But everything we're doing right now is a learning process for everyone involved. We want to start slow and raise the bar over time."
I know that I'll be watching for the 2.0 version.