Gazing across an open field at strings of lights glowing amid the trees, watching stars wink on one by one in the darkening sky, it’s easy to imagine that Press Cafe is farther from civilization than it really is. Downtown Fort Worth is a mere five miles away, but for urban dwellers like me who seldom get closer to nature than a planter box, the sense of big sky (well, medium sky) is intoxicating. Once upon a time, the place where the three-month-old cafe sits was cattle country. Back in 1846, Lemuel J. Edwards came to Texas from Missouri, and two years later, with a grant from the state, he established the Edwards Ranch. Over the decades, it expanded to more than seven thousand acres. But times and economies change, and eventually the land came to be worth more than the cattle. Development, which has been ongoing for a while, is just about to kick into higher gear. In the next couple of years, more residences and the upscale Shops at Clearfork, anchored by Neiman Marcus, are scheduled to appear. Once that happens—Katy, bar the door.
But for now, Press Cafe still has the appealing spread pretty much to itself, and our fivesome, like the many others who had shown up that evening, regarded it as our own private Idaho. We admired the well-designed glass building. We meandered over to the hike-and-bike trail. We peered into a damp canal that allegedly contained the Trinity River. We watched kids play tag. When another party went inside, we claimed several low chairs around the fire pit, wishing we had brought marshmallows.
In about thirty minutes, we were settled into squared-off calfskin chairs, unfolding linen napkins (each of which had a buttonhole thoughtfully stitched in one corner)and scanning the short, agreeable menu, which is offered at both lunch and dinner. Basically, I would call it steakhouse lite with some sandwiches and burgers. We ordered and resigned ourselves to a wait. Ten minutes later, a perky waitress appeared with our choices. Uh-oh, I thought, this is not a good sign, but in fact, the kitchen was just incredibly efficient.
The sliced New York strip was lightly charred on the outside and deliciously laced with well-rendered fat. It had been cooked barely medium-rare and drizzled with a kicky chile de árbol chimichurri. Its side dish was Colcannon potatoes, an old-fashioned treatment that seemed suddenly up-to-date: coarsely mashed spuds mixed with chopped kale. Our other two meaty entrées were pig and poultry. The hefty broiled Kurobuta pork loin chop had been marinated for 24 hours in olive oil, lemon juice, and garlic, but even so, it fell shy of complete tenderness. Its apt if not surprising accompaniment was a great take on creamed spinach, enriched with béchamel and boosted by Parmigiano-Reggiano and a fistful of pine nuts. If you order the rotisserie chicken here, you get half a bird imaginatively seasoned with harissa and Aleppo peppers. Although the skin wasn’t as crispy as it might have been, the overall effect was elevated by a terrific side of nutty farro and wild rice tossed with cubed butternut squash. But the best dish of the evening was the market fish. Although neither the price nor description suggested that our salmon was wild, it was good quality and perfectly sautéed, with simple salt and pepper setting off rosy-pink flesh.
I hadn’t intended to order the pasta of the day, but two of my friends had liked a previous version, so I thought, why not? It was penne this time, with seared cherry tomatoes, a shower of Parmesan, and fragrant ribbons of basil. The friends were dejected that it wasn’t spunkier, but I thought it was nicely made, just right for somebody who wants a walk on the mild side.
Given that every entrée comes with a side, we really didn’t need anything else, but out of curiosity we tried two other accompaniments. Tossed in a pineapple-serrano glaze, the baby brussels sprouts didn’t exactly set the world on fire, but the colorful salad of heirloom vegetables was another thing altogether. Mounded on Boston lettuce was a carnival of sweetly dressed avocado, pears, peas, purple potatoes, pistachios, chopped radicchio, and Port Salut cheese. Prompted by a sense of duty, we had dessert, but when I tasted the two artless cakes, I wondered if they’d come from a bake sale. The huge, stodgy oatmeal cookie would have made an excellent equine treat. By far the best dessert was a simple peanut butter cookie.
Later, when I chatted with 38-year-old chef-owner Felipe Armenta, I was surprised to learn that he didn’t grow up in Fort Worth. He was pretty much destined to go into the restaurant business, though; his parents ran Mexican restaurants in Houston and San Angelo. In his twenties, he got seriously into upscale dining with the California-based Hillstone group (which owns several Houston’s restaurants in Texas). “When I lived in New York,” he said, “I would go to work at five a.m., get off at six, go home and change, and then a buddy and I would hit two or three restaurants a night.” Returning to San Angelo, he started restaurants of his own in that city and Odessa. Six years ago, he moved to Fort Worth, where he opened the Tavern and Pacific Table. Cork & Pig is on the books for April.
I asked him if he had been surprised at the immediate popularity of Press Cafe. Shocked was more like it, he said. He had envisioned a modest place on the hike-and-bike trail (the name signals pressed sandwiches and French press coffee), and for four days, it seemed to be exactly that. Then, he said, “Things went gangbusters.” He intends to change the menu frequently to keep up the momentum, but at the same time he doesn’t want to be crushed by success. That will be a neat balancing act. My advice to potential customers: go now. The construction cranes will be on the horizon before you know it, and there’s no telling how that will affect Press Cafe’s most valuable asset: its location location location.
Press Cafe: 4801 Edwards Ranch Rd, Fort Worth (817-570-6002). B, L & D 7 days. $$–$$$
Opened: January 7, 2016