Epicurious Eating: Café 21
Edible jewels from a faraway land
Published Thursday, 28-Jan-2010 in issue 1153
When you hanker for Thai, Mexican or Indian food, you know where to go. Ethopian, Caribbean or Australian? A brief online restaurant search will steer you in the right direction. But how about Azerbaijan cuisine? Bet you didn’t know that the Eurasian republic is represented on San Diego’s culinary landscape — or let alone don’t know what it is.
If you’ve never been to Café 21 (formerly named Café 2121), now is the time to discover a broader sampling of that country’s traditional recipes. Earlier this month, owners Alex and Leyla Javadov introduced a pilot supper menu containing several dishes from their native homeland: rustic duck in pomegranate glaze; Azeri lamb pilaf with apricots, prunes (and sometimes chestnuts); and chicken stuffed with spinach and cheese. It was added to an already established roster of breakfast and lunch specialties containing more gourmet twists than what you would expect from a modest neighborhood restaurant.
Visiting just short of when the couple began rolling out nightly dinner service, which starts officially on February 1, a companion and I surveyed the evening menu while savoring with gusto some of the choicest midday fare that University Heights has to offer.
An order of four crepes folding in marinated chicken breast and caramelized onions captured the titillating heartiness of a home-baked casserole, sans the gooiness, and wrapped in delightfully porous blinis (a.k.a., the Slavic version of crepes that soak in a more buttery fried flavor compared to their smoother French cousins).
Azerbaijanis take their cue from nearby Middle Eastern countries when it comes to using such herbs as mint, cardamom, sumac and saffron. And their proclivity for soup-making reigns supreme, as proven in an unforgettable bowl of chicken and vermicelli soup stocked also with fingerling potatoes. Floating on top of the clear broth was a mix of grassy herbs, primarily dill. Soothingly familiar as Mom’s chicken soup, yet exotically un-American, it’s a bewitching concoction that seemingly carries more healing properties than pharmaceuticals.
The bread at Café 21 is baked every morning on the premises in a recipe that uses equal parts wheat and white flours. For sandwiches, it’s grilled slightly on both sides to achieve a teasing crisp. We deferred to our friendly and enthusiastic waiter for recommendations, and without regret.
The Normal Heights Stacker encases semi-thin slices of tender roast beef, mushrooms, aged cheddar and whole grain mustard. For vegetarians (and carnivores who don’t believe that meatless dishes can taste pretty damn swell), the roasted eggplant and tomato sandwich with carrots, mozzarella and feta cheese is a big winner. We also loved the jumbo homemade potato chips that are available as an accompaniment to the sandwiches should you forgo the other choices – soup du jour or a green salad with strawberries.
Unable to bypass a selection of toothsome breakfast fare, we succumbed to thick yet fluffy apple-cinnamon pancakes as well as marvelous French toast stuffed with very-berry tasting cream cheese, thanks to an infusion of antioxidant- rich acai berries. Shrimp, sausage and proscuitto omelets are also available, along with a couple choices of “breakfast desserts” that include pound cake “fries” with homemade chocolate-strawberry dipping sauce.
In addition, fans of potato pancakes are in good hands here. Leave it to the Azerbaijanis for making them crisp on the outside, moist and steamy inside, much like you would find if they originated from a Russian or Eastern European household. With just enough fry grease to pacify the tongue, there’s no need for sour cream, syrup or butter on these babies.
Café 21 is looking more chic these days. The exterior has gone from washed-out beige to vibrant rust-red. Big umbrellas dot the front patio. And inside are heavy dark-wood tables of various sizes that suitably contrast creamy avocado walls adorned with unique art pieces. From its humble beginnings in a much smaller space that began down the street, the owners have essentially turned their casual café into a metro destination filled with genuine hospitality and meals that teeter on the line of fine-dining.