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Photograph by Pete Shea
A halibut good dish: Owner John Mootz and chef Tom Slatt present Sestri's pan-seared Alaskan halibut with blood orange vinaigrette.

Full-Figured Fare

Girls' night out at Sestri

By Christina Waters

Four women. Four hungry women. Four hungry women with two bottles of red wine and wildly divergent tastes in food. You can already see where this is going: directly to a memorable dinner at Sestri.

Funny how you never really know someone until you sit down to dinner with her. Here I was seated at the long banquette in Sestri's main room, surrounded by colorful artwork, gazing at the tomato-red exhibition kitchen. And immediately it was obvious that my three companions and I were not on the same page, foodwise. Casey, for example, wanted her seafood absolutely, totally cooked (i.e., well done) all the way through. Susan, on the other hand, loves the raw and the rare. Katya fancies seasonal flavors and garnishes. I like clear flavors and anything I can't make at home. A challenge? You bet.

We began with two shared appetizers. The excellent house calamari fritti, served crisp, light and tender with a lemon caper aioli ($9), was pronounced "classic" by calamari aficionado Susan. Another appetizer of baked bruschetta arrived topped with a sophisticated crab melt, including a salty parmesan cream sauce laced with roasted peppers and not quite enough crab for Casey's taste ($9). While it was easy to like, it seemed a bit heavy for an appetizer. In the bread department, we all felt underwhelmed by the soft, Parker House-style bread served along with this Mediterranean menu. Sestri might consider sourcing a bread worthier of the high standards of the entire menu--perhaps one of our fine local franceses or ciabattas.

A bottle of picture-perfect Windy Oaks Estate Cuvée Pinot Noir 2005 was our main libation. Velvety, with a substantial middle of plums and spice, it stood up to most of the entrees. Brought in for the occasion, this bottle lasted us through most of the meal, until the baton was passed to a robust zinfandel 2004 from Burrell School Winery. Sestri happily opens bottles brought by patrons, and does not charge corkage for parties of less than six.

As far as entrees, we were all over the map. Casey chose the evening seafood special of Alaskan halibut, presented over a rich bed of artichoke and saffron polenta with sautéed baby spinach ($24). A sautéed topping of cherry tomatoes, olives and capers sparked the entire dish into high gear. We all thought the halibut was perfect, even though the thickest portion was "too undercooked" for Casey.

Always in the mood for red meat, Susan went for the natural Angus filet mignon wrapped in prosciutto ($28). The steak--which arrived perfectly rare as requested--was topped with caramelized red onions and encircled by garlic mashed potatoes, broccoli rabe and a satiny chianti reduction: classic meat and potatoes in a handsome and generous presentation.

Katya loves duck, and Sestri's Maple Leaf Farms roast duck breast was festooned with one of the reigning greens of spring, pungent fresh pea shoots. Served on a bed of gooey parmesan risotto with a fruity demi-glace, at $19 this brightly flavored dish was a true bargain.

My order of braised lamb shank osso buco was a voluptuous creation, topped with gremolata of carrot, onion and lemon zest and nestled on a bed of very rich and salty gorgonzola and baby spinach risotto ($23). There was a lot going on here, flavorwise, and the extremely intense seasonings almost overwhelmed the beautifully braised lamb. Almost.

The theme here, as you can tell, is layers and layers of flavor. This can make for terrific mouthfeel and satisfaction. But occasionally such vigorous seasoning and saucing approached critical mass. Have you ever heard of four women dining out and not ordering dessert? We chose a tiramisu, ultracreamy and adorned with fresh fruit and tiny tuile cookies--and a sophisticated hazelnut liqueur-laced espresso poured over caramel ice cream (both $6). The fat square of cake and espresso-doused mascarpone had been dusted with chocolate as well as a berry sauce. One or the other would have been fine. A lot happens in the dishes at Sestri. Sometimes less really can be more.


Address: 655 Capitola Road, Santa Cruz

Phone: 831.479.0200

Hours: Dinner 5-10pm; closed Sun

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