Been taking it easy in the kitchen and eating my way through a few new-to-me places and revisiting others. Will do a detailed report of Sestri and end on a few other notes. Apologize for the length of this.
SESTRI RESTAURANT & BAR (www.sestrisantacruz.com)
Thanks to Nathan's positive report (see link), hubby and I decided to have Fri. dinner at Sestri. Scored a same-day reservation for 7pm--moments like this when I'm thankful that I live in a small town. Asked to be seated in a particular waiter's station, one of hubby's former students who fortunately did well in the class (no revenge to fear).
Immed. liked the place upon entering. Very warm, modern American trattoria feel. Warmly welcomed by a hostess and shown to our table in the far back of the restaurant. Scanning the place, I noticed the two comfy bar areas (perfect for solo diners), the fresh salads awaiting pick-up, the wood-fired oven, and the eager-to-please staff who acknowledged us as we snaked through to our seats.
Kinda bummed that we were placed in the back room since it was more subdued, but we did request this station. Unfortunately, another hostess approached us after a few min. and informed us that our requested waiter was not working tonight after all. She was genuinely apologetic; we didn't bother asking to move since we had settled in already.
We were offered two menus: the regular menu and the daily specials. Immed. felt tinge of regret that we didn't come earlier, since we were just a tad late for their weekday early-bird (5-6:30) prix fixe menu. For just under $20pp, one is offered a choice of soup or salad, hearty pasta or risotto, and one of two desserts. A great value IMO and nice that it's still offered on Fri.
Menu covers expected Italian-influenced dishes w/ hints of surprise here and there. Italian names are followed by English descriptions underneath. Hubby scanned the menu and said half-jokingly, "you have made everything on this menu." While at first glance, the food may sound like any dish one can replicate at home, Sestri is really more than that. The obvious care in using organic, local ingredients coupled w/ wood-fired oven cooking infuses their dishes w/ a certain depth and mastery worth seeking. What we ordered:
Fried calamari w/ lemon aioli ($8.5): Tried to dissuade hubby from ordering this since he seems to get it everywhere we go, but there was no convincing him. Came out very quickly. Enormous serving of Monterey calamari (not many tentacles, darn!). Well-fried, very flavorful yet a tad too salty after a few bites. Liked it overall, but main complaint: aioli was smeared *underneath* the calamari, resulting in some soggy and oversauced pieces.
Salad of baby spinach, shaved fennel and pears, gorgonzola, pecans, and balsamic vinaigrette ($7.5): I chose this and soon after regretted that I didn't go for the citrus salad w/ arugula and seasonal citrus. No worries, the salad ended up being very delicate yet full of contrasting flavors and textures. All ingredients were at the peak of freshness.
"The Sestri" pizza w/ caramelized onion, gorgonzola, and rosemary ($10): Like the salad, kinda wished we had ordered the margherita w/ prosciutto and arugula instead upon reflection, but ended up devouring this anyhow. Good-sized, thin-crust pizza w/ a perfectly blistered, cracker-like crust. Toppings were in thoughtful proportion, resulting in a sweet and savory delight.
Orecchiete w/ sweet sausage, rapini, fire-roasted tomatoes, green chiles, and pecorino romano ($13.5): While the dish appeared lightly sauced, it was def. not lacking in flavor. When a place can infuse that much flavor into a pasta dish yet not load it down w/ sauce, it has passed my pasta litmus test and bounded forward in earning my trust. Rapini was the most delicious part, and the heat from the chiles was unapologetic, a welcomed accent.
Wine list features a moderate selection of local and Italian wines. Many were quite affordable, but for serious wine drinkers, wine options may feel limited. Hubby got a glass of the Silver Mountain Chardonnay ($8) while I got the Bargetto Dolcetto ($6). Both were nice--I liked mine better--and were sipped over the course of the evening.
After our mains, we were thoroughly stuffed and still had a fair amt. of the calamari and my pasta to take home. Some of the desserts sounded really interesting (eg, wild vanilla and black tea creme brulee; pudding flavored w/ bergamot) so they don't seem to slouch there. Service was very good--rhythm of the meal was perfect, and I noticed servers discreetly eyeing our progress to cue. Our particular waiter was friendly and eager-to-please but lacked depth that will come w/ experience.
All in all, this place made me quite happy. The kind of place that I could see myself eating at weekly w/ the ever-changing menu and careful treatment of ingredients. With the prix fixe deal, bet I will have another report in the next week or so. It was consistently crowded throughout the evening, a good sign that this newish restaurant has rooted itself.
ENGFER PIZZA WORKS (www.engferpizzaworks.com)
Wood-fired pizza for eat-in or pick-up only. Tried large (14") pepperoni for around $15. Overall, not crazy about pizza. While pepperoni pizza can be greasy, their version was too greasy, not enough sauce, mediocre cheese. Will stick w/ Pizza My Heart.
EL PAISANO TAMALES (605 Beach St.; across from Boardwalk)
Contrary to the name, they have a number of other items like burritos, enchiladas, etc. on their menu. Also serve menudo on certain days. Tried two tamales (one pork, one beef) w/ sauce and cheese (~$6) and pork burrito (~$5). Tamales themselves were tender and flavorful, yet gloppy sauce and cheese were overpowering. Burrito was comfort food in a tortilla but was so soft that it fell apart easily and was difficult to eat. Flavor was good though. Will return for plain tamales and to sample their menudo. Probably some of the better eats in a highly touristic part of town. Thanks for the rec, Nathan!
TACOS MORENO (1053 Water St.)
Only my 2nd visit after a positive first one. Ordered their super burrito w/ carne asada, corn tortilla quesadilla, lengua taco. Total w/ two Jarritos sodas came to about $13. Burrito was delicious, perfectly balanced like Eric Eto described. Not gargantuan, but a satisfying lunch. Quesadilla was good; lengua melted yet had some subtle chew here and there. I'm officially hooked on this place.