2736 Adams Avenue, University Heights
750 Fifth Avenue, Downtown San Diego
Café 21 began as a lunch joint in University Heights, moved to a larger location there, and has now accepted the dare of downtown. It’s the zesty creation of a young couple from Azerbaijan, a former Soviet Republic in the southernmost Caucasus (closer to Persia and Turkey than to Russia). But this is no amateur mom ’n’ pop shop: the service lives up to the cooking.
Host Alex (who came to San Diego to study hospitality) and chef Leyla both have turned thoroughly pro, offering an always-interesting culinary mixture of Azeri specialties, along with Ukrainian, Russian, Mediterranean, and California-inspired cooking. Leyla produces the fresh-baked breads and desserts.
The menu changes weekly; specials that have proved patron favorites often go into the rotation. Highlights include stuffed vegetables and huge and vivacious salads (the strawberry salad is unforgettable, the roast grape salad a Renaissance painting). Azeri ground-lamb kebabs and stews, and the national dish, an elaborately garnished saffron pilaf, are revelatory. Easy to do a grazing dinner, as appetizer and salad portions are ginormous and easy to share, but then you’d miss enjoying a unique entrée.
Breakfasts are even more popular than dinners downtown, and no less creative. Consider Tiramisu Pancakes. Judging by the apricot crêpes sometimes served as an appetizer, they’re probably less sweet than they sound.
Five different sangrias are offered. The bottled and by-the-glass wine list is cursory, but corkage is minimal. Lacto-vegetarian friendly, vegan-okay.
— Naomi Wise
3940 Fourth Avenue, Hillcrest
All the fragrant seasonings of Morocco await here, happily free of that sit-on-the-floor-pillows nonsense of most Moroccan restaurants in California. The simple room is handsomely decorated with Moroccan fabrics, but it’s the food that takes center stage, along with the warm hospitality of witty host/chef/owner Moumen Nouri and his cordial crew. Moumen has expanded the menu over the years, adding the requisite b’stilla (minced chicken with all manner of goodies in a phyllo mini-pie) to the preexisting irresistible harissa lentil soup, plus a host of intriguing new salads and vegetable appetizers. Cocktails are available; the ones to try are those featuring rose water (a champagne-based Moroccan Kiss) or hot pepper (Lalla Sharmoula, a bloody mary variant.)
Moumen was also smart enough to restrict kebabs (mere street snacks in Morocco), perhaps to encourage diners to explore the more elaborate and authentic entrées, especially the tagines, richly flavored Moroccan stews of vegetables or meats. The honeyed lamb shanks with nuts are sweet, meaty heaven on a plate. Equally heavenly is the sassier chicken with olives and preserved lemons.
Vegetarians and vegans will rejoice in not only a vegetarian tapas plate but a veggie Berber tagine (perfect over couscous) and a tagine of veggie-stuffed peppers (also available with meat). Omnivores looking for a prix fixe can dive into the moderately priced ($20 or $30 per person ) multi-course Moroccan Feasts.
— Naomi Wise
2121 Adams Avenue, University Heights
This is the sun-dappled, utterly non-snooty side of French cuisine. No scary prices, no snobby service, no heavy sauces, and the wines are priced moderately enough to dive into. This unpretentious bistro is more genuinely French (in all the best senses) than a lot of the faque-French higher-priced spreads around town. This isn’t Paris; it’s the southern-countryside, age-old source of much of the best Gallic food. Look at all those cute little wooden ducks marching around the restaurant walls. No intimidation here.
The food is blithe and sunny, too, and often surprisingly light. (This is not a heavy sauce brun place.) The ingredients are fresh, seasonal, and mainly local, in true country style. Chef-owner Olivier Bioteau obviously loves cooking: he constantly learns new techniques and skills. A few years ago, he became a chocolatier. Now he’s taken up charcuterie and is making his own creative sausages, served as entrées on select weeknights (see website) and at weekend brunch. But don’t miss his earlier creation, a supernal chicken-liver mousse.
The weekend brunch is noteworthy, especially for ethereal ricotta-citrus pancakes and true French “french toast.” Larger appetites might consider the braised oxtail with three-egg omelet and the soft polenta with corn and house-made sausage.
This might just be the perfect neighborhood French restaurant, whether here or in Provence. The restaurant is small, though. Best to reserve a day ahead.
— Naomi Wise
1653 Garnet Avenue, Pacific Beach
Costa Brava, along with Pata Negra, its adjacent Spanish deli, is San Diego’s center of authentic full-flavored Spanish cuisine and culture. Some nights, there are musicians; on other nights, loud soccer plays on the TVs in the bar. (The website shows the soccer schedule.) All nights, the kitchen is open in true Iberian style until midnight.
Owned and hosted by the personable Javier Gonzales, the restaurant is set in a former residence, with riotous flora all over the front and tall palms shading the balcony, where you can lunch outdoors.
The menu opens with a vast selection of tapas, both hot and cold. Anchovy lovers will swoon over a dish that Javier claims comes from his hometown: Spanish anchovies and sweet, lightly smoked piquillo peppers. Among the hot tapas are irresistibly creamy croquetas, both of chicken and salt cod, dates wrapped in bacon, and moist morcilla (black sausage) sautéed with onions. Lots of easier choices there, too — cheeses, seafood, and ham plates, including, sometimes, prized Iberico ham from free-range pigs raised on acorns.
The several paella variations have real integrity, the best in San Diego. But don’t overlook other pleasures, such as braised rabbit, oxtail braised in Rioja wine, and fresh sea bass cooked in sparkling Cava with dates and figs.
The wine list is mainly Spanish and affordable, with an excellent sangria if you’re not inclined to gamble. Desserts, or a dessert wine, are worth enjoying. Even the flan here is good.
— Naomi Wise
3860 Convoy Street, Suite 110, Kearny Mesa
Tucked in the corner of the strip-mall that houses Nijiya Market is a tiny, warm little restaurant called Okan. I realize that the word “tapas” is used to describe almost every type of appetizer or small plate these days, and indeed Okan uses it to describe simmered, homey, Japanese comfort dishes served from the large plates that line a U-shaped counter.