Serving Classic Cuisine
By Debra Cornwell
Frequently at the top of Mid-Atlantic Best Weekend and Best Day Trip lists, Shepherdstown is a unique introduction to Jefferson County and West Virginia. The Potomac River town's latest accolade is Baltimore Magazine's 2012 Best of Baltimore Winner for Day Trips. Yet, a great destination cannot be great without great food, and The Press Room is among the delightful eateries of Shepherdstown.
Since 2007, The Press Room has satiated locals and visitors with clean, classic cuisine under the guidance of owner/chef Michael Luksa and his wife/business partner Deborah. The Luksas have realized their dream of owning a casually elegant dining establishment embodied in The Press Room.
"When we started thinking about doing our own restaurant, we researched our favorite restaurants from the Gramercy Tavern and Balthazar in New York City, to places in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, DC," recalls Deborah. "Although we picked up a few great ideas, we realized that we have to know our clientele and locale and do something true to that."
The duo met over thirty years ago when Deborah was attending Shepherd University and waiting tables at the Yellow Brick Bank Restaurant. Michael's family had moved here from Buffalo and while dining at the restaurant mentioned that they had a son with culinary experience who was looking for work. The fates were in motion for happy partnership for Michael and Deborah.
The sixty seat restaurant is located in The Independent Building. Constructed in the 1790's, the building had many uses of over the years. Historian Jim Surkamp's research reveals it housed a harness-making shop and on the side, the workers would re-stitch baseballs brought in by local children. The building is best known as The Independent newspaper headquarters. When looking at the building, Michael inquired about a large, square hole in the floor. He learned that is where the printing press was located. He connected the images of the printing press as well as pressing of grapes and olives, and the name, The Press Room, was born.
Seated on wonderfully comfortable chairs and nibbling on the house made bread—a nice dense bread with a great crust—we took in our surroundings. Approaching guests take note of lush plants in the large windows and in an elegant, purpose-built, conservatory-like vestibule. The warm brick walls are set off by large paintings by artist Susan Carney—each of an individual vegetable in a warm color pallet. The look is sleek without being stark. The polished tables reflected candlelight alongside the fresh flowers and extra virgin olive oil, and the soap from Mexico in the wash rooms is lovely.
I sampled sublime Katama oysters from Massachusetts, Pemaquid oysters from Maine, and Indian Creek oysters from Prince Edward Island. Found off the coast of Martha's Vineyard, the Katamas were salty with a hint of sweetness. The Pemequid was plump with a lemony finish. The Indian Creek oysters, my favorite selection, were mild and delicate. The Press Room's signature mignonette includes fennel, shallots, sweet red pepper, carrots, and a subtle vinegar. All exquisite, they would be divine washed down with chilled champagne.
One of my companions contentedly munched on house made mozzarella with freshly snipped basil and large Mortgage Lifter tomatoes drizzled with extra virgin olive oil. My other companion chose well with the mussels, a selection that offers white wine, garlic, tomatoes, and spinach with a toasted baguette slice for soaking the tasty broth.
Our entrees—two penne bolognese and a Chilean sea bass—were delectable. Nine pasta dishes are on the menu. The bolognese is a rich, slowly cooked sauce with ground beef, not-too-hot sausage, a red wine reduction, tomatoes, mushrooms, garlic, and a touch of cream. The Chilean sea bass disappeared from the menu when the market price skyrocketed, but devotees can rejoice with its reappearance. A thick super-white piece of fish, also known as the Patagonia Tooth Fish, there cannot be a fish that is anymore succulent.
Michael prepares it to perfection with a thinly crisped skin in an orange, shallot, and dijon reduction accompanied by a side of haricot verts.
We finished our meal by sharing a lavender crème brulee. Regular readers of Featured Eats might remember my love-hate relationship with crème brulee. With the addition of lavender, this is a love. Lavender is an under-utilized herb in cooking.
I make cookies with it, and when a recipe calls for Herbes de Provence, I add a pinch more lavender. The subtle fragrance of the lavender adds so much to this creamy dessert with its caramelized sugar lid. If you want a dinner reservation in the summer during the Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF) at Shepherd University, you might want to make your reservations in February.
Michael says the restaurant has customers who come back year after year. Deborah relayed, "One gentleman came in and said, ‘You probably don't remember me,' but I knew who he was and inquired about his wife. He said, ‘It's good to be here, and I'll see you again next year!"
Diners can expect friendly, professional service. Michael says the servers understand and respect the food. The Luksas know how to promote team work, too. After several weeks of being crazy-busy during the CATF season, the Luksas took their team to Kent Island overnight for a fishing charter and crab feed.
The Luksas agree that the food they serve is a type of comfort food that is not buried under layers of ingredients. "We showcase the main ingredient and add a nice accompaniment," they say. "We have the familiarity of "Cheers" with our regular customers, too." The Press Room has an extensive menu, and although the restaurant has evolved over the last five years, it stays true to the Luksas vision of classic, clean cuisine.