Our group was tempted by the light, clever toppings of the “Azeri hand-tossed pizzas” as appetizers, until we heard Alex warning our neighbors that they were really casual main courses and would kill their appetites for entrées.
Sam had brought an interesting Italian red for the entrée course (corkage just $10), but we wanted a white for appetizers. The wine list is modest and affordable (mainly under $30), nothing major on it. I chose a Writer’s Block Rousanne white from Lassen County, with a front-label portrait of young Shakespeare bearing quill pen and an amusing back-label outburst of ridiculous prose: “I was pleasure-whoring in Elephant Alley one night when we accidentally bumped up. She was incandescence with teeth like halogen headlights and platinum-blonde hair that nearly crackled with product…” (It gets even funnier; e.g., the scuzzy motel room with “leftover chicken Vindaloo and a CD of some klezmer-metal hybrid.”) Too bad the wine isn’t as good as the unblocked writing. If you’ve got a cellarful of good wines and fall in love with the food here, BYO may be the way to go.
I usually beat the crowds by eating midweek, but scheduling snarls required a Friday-night visit. The restaurant was slamming. The whole staff was coping remarkably well with service, but by 7:30, some popular entrées, like the Rustic Duck Stew, had run out. We substituted the handsome Azeri Pasta we’d seen snaking its way through the house to another table. This consists of four dumplings (like Russian pelmenyi) stuffed with coarsely chopped chicken (both white and dark), both topped and mixed with a swirl of caramelized onions, each pastry sitting next to a matching pool of basil-strewn crème fraîche on the rectangular serving plate. The pasta proved rather thick and chewy (that’s authentic, like it or not). The chicken (marinated before cooking, like the turkey in the crêpes) was flavorful.
Seeing Salmon in Puff Pastry on the menu gave me a giggle of recognition. It is a version of Coulibiac, one of the labor-intensive haute cuisine dishes created by the fabled French chefs who went off to Russia to work for the Czars — dishes that were then re-adapted by Parisian chefs when White Russian émigrés (the Kardashians of their day) became a human fad in France in the late 19th Century. Cafe 21’s version has a thin, crisp puff pastry and includes spinach and a goat-cheese mousse in the stuffing, with a mushroom cream sauce for moisture over an elaborate basmati rice pilaf. All would be well, but the salmon is too dry, nearly tasteless — probably farm-raised product, lacking the muscular flavor and underlying fat of wild catch. “What a pity,” said Rebecca. “You can get much better wild salmon at Costco for about the same price.”
The pilaf is not simply rice but almost Persian-style, studded with golden raisins, green lentils, nuts, and bits of spinach. (I have to admit I didn’t discover all that at the restaurant, but in the leftovers, so some of it may be trout-stuffing spillovers.) Moistening the rice is a light, velvety mushroom cream sauce. I suddenly realized that newfangled upscale California restaurants rarely do cream sauces anymore. And a good cream sauce is a joy forever. How could something so scrumptious go so far out of style? Julia Child ate butter and cream to the very end, well into her 90s, but I guess we have to blame the food police, who declared war on fat in the ’80s — opening the way to agribusiness’s sea of sweet, empty carbs (e.g., high-fructose corn syrup). Now we don’t eat fat — we are fat.
Two of the evening specials were must-tries. In stuffed rainbow trout, the filling protects the delicate meat and keeps it tender, while the skin is blasted on high heat until dark and shatteringly crisp. The stuffing: minced spinach, walnuts, dill, meaty black mushrooms. Perfect. On the side are small potatoes and, looking like chopped Yukon golds, chunks of baked underripe pears. Like the salmon, it comes atop pilaf with mushroom cream sauce.
Stuffed Savoy Cabbage is the ultimate in comfort food, like something cooked by a grandmother who really loves her grandchildren. This must be a contribution of Leyla’s Ukrainian family; the Azeri, Alex told me, prefer to stuff summer vegetables (tomatoes, peppers, summer squash, etc.), like the Persians. This rendition is much gentler than my Russian grandmother’s (which had regular cabbage stuffed with rice and cheap ground beef in a heavy canned tomato sauce studded with cloves and raisins). Instead, it has meltingly soft Savoy cabbage surrounding a very gentle meat loaf of veal and rice, moistened with a sauce of cooked fresh tomatoes. A side of mashed potato melts into the sauce. First bite seemed bland. Third bite, surrender.
Did we want dessert? Not really — until we saw one of many plates going by showcasing great white trembling half-domes bedecked with strawberry slices. “Is that dessert Azeri?” Sam asked Alex as he passed our table. “Sure,” Alex answered. “My wife’s from Azerbaijan; she created it, so it’s Azeri.” Light, creamy-textured, and indulgent — but much less fattening than it seemed — it consisted of whipped egg white meringue (see, no fat and almost no calories!), whipped mascarpone (to hold it all together), and coconut, garnished by berries, with barely enough sugar to sweeten it. The espressos weren’t great (no crema) but decent. Leyla rarely makes baklava anymore. “It doesn’t make good business sense for us,” said Alex. “As soon as she makes them, I eat them all.”
The exploration has just begun. “I want to come back here right away to taste the rest of the menu,” said Sam. And at these prices, it’s easy to do so. A singleton can fill up (on an appetizer or pizza) for $12 or less. A larger group can do two courses for about $25 (plus beverages). The food is fresh, seasonal, vivacious, unconventional. Welcome to affordable Azerbaijan!
Foodie Gossip, Mainly Good: Well, I’ve adapted to the Modern Age at last and now have a blog on the Reader website with the freshest food gossip I can reap on the streets, whenever I think of posting. (Mainly, I think, births and deaths of restaurants, plus the occasional new venture that doesn’t fit easily into the review format.) Do not expect me to Tweet, too. I’d rather sing for my supper. In any case: the Jai issue has worked itself out. Jai will be open only when there’s a show at the next-door theater (next time will be June). The rest of the time (such as right now) it will go into hibernation. Better part-time than no time, right? And, shockingly, popular Trattoria Acqua was on the verge of closing when it lost its lease last week, but the landlord reneged at the last minute, so it’s back for at least another year.