Dining with two friends last week, I sampled the inviting Early Bird Prix Fixe menu at Sestri. On Tuesdays the $19.95, three-course special runs all evening, (usually it’s a Mon-Fri deal, from 5-7pm). Also – head’s up – there’s no corkage fee at Sestri, which means that bargain-hunters can bring their own favorite vintages with them. Two things occur to me here. That’s mighty early for some people to consider eating. On the other hand, $19.95 is a major deal — and of course that’s the point. Smart restaurants increasingly offer specials to tempt diners in during under-populated days and times, e.g. Tuesday is the dead zone for dining, and 5-7 time slot is considered “unfashionably” early. Okay. So what did we find?

Well, our helpful, friendly server did introduce herself by name and explained that she would be, surprise, our server that evening. Our bottle of outstanding Stevenot Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 (thanks Susan!) was expertly opened and correctly poured. Opening courses were attractively presented. The roasted garlic bisque tasted of flour (thickening agent), and the pretty organic salad greens were gritty. Terrific crouton, though. Then there was a long wait, which was odd since there weren’t that many early birds taking advantage of the early pricing. Finally our entrees of cioppino-style seafood stew and venison osso buco arrived. The cioppino was loaded with succulent fish, clams, mussels, and calamari, but the tomato broth was underspiced and uninspired. My venison was delicious — the veggies were tepid, but the meat was hot. I was concerned about the sharp bits of bone that kept finding their way into the tender meat, and into a few of the bites I took. Yikes, that could be painful. The venison was listed as $23 on the alacarte side of the menu, so once again, this meal was a deal.

Dessert was terrific! Warm chocolate cake, moist and not-too-sweet was sided with outrageous sweet cream gelato. Ripe berries on the side, this dish was a palliating finish to the meal. I’m still not sure how I feel about it. If the greens had been more carefully washed, the bisque more expertly prepared, and the cioppino sauce more interestingly seasoned – this could have been a wonderful dinner. And for the price, a wonderful bargain. But I didn’t love it. Nor did my two dinner partners. I couldn’t help thinking about the Sestri of yore, when chef Jamie Smith wowed our tastebuds with distinctive Italianate dishes.

Sestri – 655 Capitola Road, open nightly from 5-10pm. 831/479-0200.