The Press Room proves to be superb

Emphasis is on fresh items, warm atmosphere

Emphasis is on fresh items, warm atmosphere

March 04, 2007|by SAVORY SAM

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. - The Savory Sam clan has a soft spot for Italian-Mediterranean food with its emphasis on fresh ingredients and regional specialties. So we put The Press Room, a new restaurant in Shepherdstown high on our list of places to visit.

When the clan visited recently, we were hugely pleased. The Press Room's kitchen doesn't produce standardized Italian-American food. The food reminded us of what we ate on our recent visit to Italy.

First impressions say a lot, and at a glance, we liked the main dining room of The Press Room. It's a classy but relaxed look, with sandblasted brick walls decorated with large paintings of vegetables. Greenery grows in a brick planter and dangles from the top of the glassed airlock at the front door.

Booths line one wall, and tables stand along the other. Tables are deep-varnished wood, surrounded by black leather-upholstered chairs. On our table stood a pepper grinder, a bottle of green olive oil, a couple of votive candles and three roses in a bud vase.


Mike Luksa, former chef of the Yellow Brick Bank restaurant down the street, directs the kitchen at The Press Room. His wife, Deb, oversees two dining rooms and the full bar. We expressed surprise to Deb that tiny Shepherdstown would support another top-notch restaurant amid an already crowded field. She pointed out that the town had no Italian restaurant before The Press Room opened in the former home of The Independent, a newspaper that ceased publication in the '70s.

The concept is a hit; the Savory Sams had to try several times to make reservations before bad weather kept diners at home one afternoon and opened up tables on short notice.

Our waiter was oddly snooty, at least at first, but generally helpful and professional. He was well-versed on the particulars of pasta and other Mediterranean specialties on the menu, and warmed to us during the course of the evening. But his attention to us was thin, despite our location near the door to the kitchen.

Given its Mediterranean theme and location in a college town, The Press Room menu is surprisingly light on vegetarian fare. Only one appetizer, four salads and three pasta dishes are meatless, which bothered our two vegetarians. For meat lovers, the variety is engaging. Menu offerings include beef, game hen, chicken and duck, plus Italian specialties - prosciutto, pancetta and sausage - and, from the sea, smoked and fresh salmon, calamari, sea bass and a variety of shellfish.

Our first round of food was delightful - crusty, homemade wheat-and-semolina bread, which we dipped in fresh-ground pepper and olive oil, Italian style. The green oil tasted like it was pressed last week, it was so fresh. Yum. And having a pepper-grinder for the table is a sure way to win points with the Savory Sams.

Appetizers arrived as bread disappeared. We shared three: calamari with sweet red peppers; a white pizza; and the house pat, served with fresh watercress, balsamic-braised red onions and a small dollop of homemade cranberry sauce.

The pizza was cheesy and mild - comfort food. The Sams' vegetarian lad expected more personality; he found the pizza bland. But the pat and calamari drew raves. The calamari - rings of squid tentacles - are grilled and served with roasted red peppers, fresh watercress and grilled bread, flavored with garlic, lemon and olive oil. I am not a calamari fan, but my partner is, and she pronounced the dish excellent.

I was disappointed in the commercial rye crackers served with the pat, but the crusty bread was perfect. And I loved combining pat with the different flavors on my plate - the cranberry sauce, watercress and to-die-for balsamic-braised red onions. The onions are worth a paragraph on their own - carmelized, vinegary, co-stars of the all-star dinner.

Our main dishes continued the culinary pleasure. The Chilean sea bass was a standout. Served "half crispy," according to the menu, it was seared on one side and melt-in-your-mouth succulent throughout. A condiment of sauted and slivered fennel root served with the sea bass was another unexpected star of the dinner; we thought the tasty, crunchy strips were sauted onions until our waiter set us straight.

The Sams' vegetarian lad ordered pappardelle - wide, egg-based linguini - with fresh tomatoes, sage and gorgonzola cheese. The pappardelle tasted homemade and went well with the tomatoes and gorgonzola, a salty, blue-style Italian cheese, though the long noodles were clumsy to handle.

A roasted beet and gorgonzola cheese salad, ordered by the Sams' youngest vegetarian as a main dish, was a hit. We loved the contrast between earthy, sweetish beets and creamy, zesty gorgonzola.

My sweet companion ordered one of the day's specials - eggplant parmigiana, a dish she ate often as a child growing up in an Italian-American home. She wanted to like The Press Room version but found it too dry, too crisp - not awful, just not up to the standard set by the other dishes.

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