Sestri, one of the restaurants that I often recommend here on CH, has what they call a "chef's table." However, it's not one of those tables in a private room that you have to pay big bucks for so you can watch the chefs cook from behind a glass wall. Rather, it's a 3-seat bar counter at the heart of the restaurant. You are perched right in front of the chefs on the edge of their open kitchen. It can get hot and steamy there and is the epitome of dining as performance art for me.
Y and I have never sat in the main dining room, but it has the best energy of all the rooms IMO. Even though it was fairly boisterous on Fri. night, the collective "noise" had a musicality that I've experienced at places like Zuni Cafe in SF. It makes me feel alive and happy.
A big bonus of sitting at the chef's table is that we actually got to interact w/ who else but the head chef!! Chef Jamie Smith was out there on the floor, inspecting plated dishes and jovially prodding his chefs. I can be somewhat shy and tongue-tied around chefs, but he had such an approachable air that it was easy for me to start chatting w/ him about Sestri's wood-burning oven. Y and I chatted w/ him btwn. his rounds, and the guy is so nice, down-to-earth, and clearly passionate about food and running a restaurant (he is also co-owner).
From the website (www.sestrisantacruz.com), he was trained at the French Culinary Institute in NY and has worked at Union Square Cafe, Lenox Room, and The Mandarin Oriental Hotel. This explains why Sestri, while relatively casual, is one of the few restaurants in SC that actually feels like a whole and complete restaurant to me. It runs very smoothly, and the food and service are both well-executed.
The Italian-inspired food is def. some of the best in SC. It's seasonal, rustic, and very satisfying. We were both starving, so ordered alot of food and had some leftovers. I took a few photos linked below, but skipped the starters because I felt self-conscious w/ the chef right next to me.
We started w/ Dungeness crab cakes w/ mixed greens and the Portofino salad w/ roasted beets, fuji apples, navel oranges, arugula, warm almond crusted goat cheese and citrus vinaigrette. The two big meaty crab cakes w/ sauce and greens could have served as a light meal, and the crab was sweet and flavorful.
For mains, we ordered two specials of the day from their "Terra e Vigna" menu...pizza w/ local artichokes, pancetta and dandelion greens and grilled lamb T-bone chops w/ goat cheese mashed potatoes, collard greens agrodolce and spicy mint pesto. While the pizza was cooked well and had nice char on the bottom (Chef Smith says they only need to bake pizza for 45-60 sec. since oven floor is around 700-800 deg), it wasn't perfectly balanced in flavor. The standout was Y's bone-in lamb chops...cooked perfectly w/ bold flavor. Meat quality was outstanding. The standard sides were elevated w/ quality ingredients and perfect execution.
We had a chocolate amarone cake w/ vanilla gelato for dessert, and Y had a cup of their house coffee (Illy brand). Cake and gelato were very nice. We each had a glass of wine; I had a Santi Pinot Grigio and Y had the Ravenswood Old Vine Red Zin. While their wine list still could use some work, I noticed that they've upgraded their stemware and the pours were super generous. Total pre-tip was around $82.
Seated right next to the warming station, some of the dishes that caught my eye: 4-cheese fondue w/ pickled radicchio and bread; steamed mussels and clams, various pastas, cioppino, and the swordfish of the day. The salads always sparkle too. The 3-course early bird prix fixe for just under $20 has got to be the best deal in town. Great food, service, and show. It's rare that I leave a SC restaurant this fulfilled...