2736 Adams Avenue, University Heights
Cafe 2121 began as a quiet little breakfast/lunch place a few blocks west of Cafe 21 at 2121 Adams. The neighborhood adopted it warmly, so owners Leyla and Alex Javado moved to a more copasetic, slightly larger spot and changed the name to Cafe 21. They redecorated and in February started serving full dinners. The neighborhood noticed and said, “Why, Miss 21, without your extra ‘21’ you’re beautiful!” It was immediately a near-ideal “little neighborhood restaurant.” But who would imagine that the food at such a spot would be based on the cuisine of — Azerbaijan?
That’s why I decided to try it. I love the cuisines of its neighbor nations. (Pomegranate is the local showplace for fascinating Georgian food; our only local Armenian restaurant isn’t much of a showplace, but as a teenager that was the first cuisine that bedazzled me.) And now — our first Azeri restaurant!
You’re probably expecting the usual little dissertation on the geography, history, and gastro-anthropology of that country, right? Truth is, all I know about Azerbaijan is that it’s one of the deep-south Balkan states that used to be an SSR and so absorbed some Russian influences while retaining a strong separate culture, including food with flavors that have more kinship with Persia and the Middle East as with the Slavic countries to the north. (According to co-owner Alex, “Azerbaijan” means “the land of fire.” It’s covered with pools of oil rising from underground, which can be set aflame.) “Azeri are famous for their hospitality,” Alex said. “The moment a guest comes to the door, out comes all the food! We have tried to keep that sense alive in our restaurant.”
Eating at Cafe 21 will tell you the rest of the culinary story — Azeri food adapted for healthy California eating, filtered through Leyla’s creative sensibilities, with loads of fresh fruits, nuts, cheeses, herbs, and lots of labor-intensive “stuffed” dishes.
Leyla, petite and pretty, and husband Alex are both from Baku, their country’s capital. Her father (recently deceased) is a beloved writer in their homeland; her mother is Ukrainian, adding another flavor to the mix. Alex is tall, dark, and broodingly handsome, but with a 500-watt smile (eye-candy alert to Jane Eyre fans and Goth girls!). He presides over the front of the house, while Leyla expedites the kitchen and creates the dishes. This isn’t some amateur mom ’n’ pop outfit struggling with the requirements of running a restaurant — though the place was slamming on my visit, the kitchen and service were right on their toes.
Alex moved here first; he came to San Diego to study for a degree in hospitality. In Baku, he managed a commercial bakery. He and Leyla were already engaged, and two years after his arrival, he sent for her. Leyla’s culinary career began with making baklava at home for a Persian restaurant downtown on Cedar Street. Soon, they needed a legal commercial kitchen for the pastries, and they rented a kitchen at 2121 Adams (where Farmhouse is now), which gradually evolved into a breakfast/lunch restaurant. As it succeeded, they moved to their current location.
The restaurant is small (maybe 40 seats, plus bar stools and outdoor plaza), cozy, and attractive. Some of the joy is marred by the high noise level that comes of uncarpeted floors, uncushioned seats, et al. (and those seats eventually cause butt-fatigue over a long meal). Through a glass window behind the bar you can watch the cooks at work. (I was driven to distraction by the uncanny resemblance of the guy in the tall toque to a boy genius I dated when we were 15.) The kitchen staff look like pros, not cheap temps. The menu is changeable, with successful specials sliding into the regular arrays, according to the reactions of the diners. Unfortunately, two interesting lamb dishes listed on the website menu (including an Azeri lamb pilaf and a garbanzo “cassoulet”) are currently MIA. “We don’t want to have everything Azerbaijani,” said Alex. “Our food is from all over the world. When I go out to eat, I like to taste more variety.”
“I’m surprised how varied the crowd is,” said Sam, noticing amid the rich ethnic mix a pair of middle-aged Oaxacan men waiting for a table. “Who’d imagine how many diners would want to try Azeri cuisine?”
The house-baked bread (with butter) consists of small, firm, round rolls that my tablemate John aptly compared to miniature bialy. Show restraint on bread consumption. The appetizers are huge, meant for sharing — or as alternative main courses for singles or couples. One quarter of one portion of the Apricot Cristo Crêpes would easily make a meal for a reasonable appetite. Thin, delicate crêpes are wrapped around hunks of turkey and melted mozzarella, subtly sweetened with apricot preserves, and touched with a thin raspberry-pomegranate sauce. It sounds potentially cloying but isn’t: The fruit acts like a chutney in Indian cuisine, a spark of bright sweetness. The turkey tasted better than turkey, but none of us could name the magic seasonings — not because they were exotic, but because they were subtle — the result of a marinade that includes paprika, garlic, and olive oil (also used with the chicken that stuffs the pasta for a main course).
A quartet of smoked salmon blini had soft pancake-like bases (Ukrainian rather than Russian-style), topped with lox (of standard quality), crème fraîche, and a microgreen array including tiny flower petals. The surprise was a shot of hot — a hidden jolt of red pepper flakes cooked into the blini dough. “They can’t mean for one person to eat this whole appetizer!” said Rebecca, John’s petite wife. (Well, I know who that person would be, but then I’d call it dinner.)
The “signature” strawberry salad is Leyla’s improvisation on California’s ubiquitous raspberry-vinaigrette salads, with strawberries as her original touch. It offers organic spring greens, mild, creamy goat cheese, plump roasted pistachios, plus sliced strawbs doused in a sweet-tart strawberry vinaigrette with streaks of scarlet raspberry syrup decorating the plate. Normally I’m not fond of sweet salad dressings, nor of large commercial strawberries (particularly underripe exports from South America), but this was such a blast of vivacity and freshness, it was like switching from B&W to color. (Another house-special salad we didn’t get to try is a baked grape salad with grilled almonds, goat cheese, and spring mix. A plateful passing by to another table looked like a Renaissance still-life painting brought to life and calling out, “Eat me.”)