Chef Keeps His Midtown Bistro Humming
By Greg Sabin
David English doesn’t quite fit the mold when you think of the modern chef. We’ve been led to believe, through reality shows, feature films and, increasingly, the local scene, that a successful restaurant chef is a personality. A chef with one successful restaurant should be thinking about opening a second and third. A well-coiffed, camera-ready cook should be polished and passionate about culinary concepts and stunning technique. On the other end of the spectrum we should expect a tattooed, pierced, shaven-headed renegade who just wants to get back to basics and get her hands dirty by discovering the locally sourced bounty all around her.
Well, English is none of those things. He’s a clean-cut, even-keeled Californian interested in serving expertly made, unfussy food at a reasonable price. He runs one of Sacramento’s best restaurants and has no plans to run another. No plans to expand, no plans to change. David English believes in consistency above all else, and it shows after eight years at his restaurant, The Press Bistro.
Opened in the uncertain days of 2010, The Press Bistro hasn’t waivered. In fact, whereas you might think opening at the tail end of a recession might be less than optimal, Chef English sees it in the most positive light.
“Back in 2010, you could find cooks, contractors, designers and furniture builders all ready to work, and ready to work at a good price. These days, with the local restaurant boom, you’re lucky to get people to return your phone calls.”
A few other advantages of opening in times of uncertainty, English says, is that you can be the “new hot thing” for almost two years. These days, you’re lucky to be the new thing for two weeks.
As they say, fortune favors the bold, and opening up in 2010 was a bold move. It also happened to be the perfect move for a chef who doesn’t strain for the limelight and doesn’t go in for much self-promotion.
“When I was named best new chef in New Orleans many years ago, the restaurant owners wanted me to be part of the public relations campaign. That’s just not me. I don’t like any of that,” English says. “And what’s more, I worried that my ego was more important than the food.”
Go into The Press Bistro any night and you’ll see English’s ego, or rather lack of it, on display. There is no job too big or too small that you won’t see him doing in his restaurant. From bussing to grilling, sweeping to serving, you’ll witness English in his white chef’s coat, keeping his fingers in every part of his place.
When it comes to the food, little has changed at The Press Bistro in eight years, and English likes it that way. Prices have moved slightly up with the market, but the three-for-$10 tapas are always available with the stuffed peppers, roasted beets and ridiculous fried meatballs, the best of the bunch. And odds are you won’t see that changing anytime soon.
“Those meatballs, peppers, beets, basically everything on the tapas menu—if I took any of those off, my regulars would come after me with butter knives,” says the chef.
The Press Bistro’s small plates are still a playground for seasonal, local ingredients. But one dish that always stays put, because it might be the finest in town, is the grilled calamari. Tender, smoky, delicate strips of calamari, lightly dressed and served over a bed of arugula, leeks and white beans, is a dish that at once reminds you of how incredible squid can be while at the same time throwing almost every other restaurant under the bus for their failure to properly celebrate our big-eyed, sea-residing friends.
When I spoke with English, I mentioned that some restaurants seemed to change their menu from soup to nuts almost every season. The Press Bistro, though, has kept the same basic menu items since it opened, while only rotating in a few new dishes here and there. The chef recalled his time in France, wanting to emulate the neighborhood bistro.
“Each local bistro has its few menu items that people come to depend on,” he says. “This place does duck, that place does roast pork. The sides and sauces change with the seasons, but the basic preparation becomes a hallmark of the restaurant.” Which is why, English says, that The Press Bistro will always have its popular short rib, hanger steak and lamb shank on the menu. It’s what people have come to expect and, above all else, English believes in consistency. Bless him for it.