Look up Azerbaijan on the map and one can see immediately how this Caucasus country is a confluence of cultures: Persian, Russian, Islamic, seafaring, to name a few. All of these influences contribute to modern-day Azerbaijan, a secular republic bordering Iran, Russia, Armenia, Georgia, Turkey, and the Caspian Sea. Chef Leyla and her husband Alex Javadov, owners of Cafe 21 in University Heights and the Gaslamp, were born and grew up in the capital city of Baku on the Caspian Sea.
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“People in Baku go to walk on the boulevard on the sea, like they do here,” said Leyla as she flipped through a picture book of her home country. In one nighttime shot, the lights glitter over the Bay of Baku, reminiscent of San Diego but with the minarets and domes of ancient Islamic and medieval architecture mixed in.
Azerbaijan means “land of fire” — a fitting moniker, given the fact that it is the first place where petroleum was extracted from below the surface to burn as fuel. The first mechanical oil rig in the world was constructed in the Bibi-Heybat area in 1871. But the country’s name goes back much further than that. Due to a large deposit of natural gas under the Absheron Peninsula, where Baku is located, seepage to the surface through fissures has occurred for thousands of years. Followers of Zoroastrianism, a religion that developed in the region over 2000 years ago, built what were called “fire temples” around these gas seepages. Marco Polo noted the mysterious, scintillating flames in his 13th-century travels. In the 1800s, Alexandre Dumas witnessed and wrote of the fire temples. An eternal fire, called Yanar Dag, burns just outside Baku, drawing visitors from around the world with its inner glow and colorful jets of fire.
Azerbaijan includes 9 out of the 11 climatic zones that occur on Earth and ranges in elevation from 90 feet below sea level to over 14,000 feet — all in a space about the size of Maine. This makes for great versatility in cultivation cuisine. Saffron, the delicately fragrant yellow spice, is grown in the region where Baku is located, and black caviar comes from sturgeon in the Caspian Sea. Apples, cherries, apricots, lemons, oranges, and tea grow in other regions of the country. Dried fruit accompanies many Azeri dishes, especially in winter, as do pickles of every ilk. People raise livestock in many places, even in Baku.
“It’s pretty normal to grow up on a farm,” laughed Leyla. “Both of my grandmothers did.”
“Many people provide their own ingredients,” added her husband Alex, as we talked in their downtown condo. “Or trade for what they need.”
That was the norm, even during Soviet rule, which lasted from 1920–1991 and into which Leyla and Alex were born. But the collapse of the Soviet Union caused widespread instability. People did the best they could with the scarcities. Alex remembers people drying herbs and eating lots of cabbage, beets, and potatoes. Leyla’s older sister was in charge of the cooking in their household, and Leyla — known in her family for experimenting with food — was not allowed to touch the most precious provisions.
She was allowed to make preserves, pickles, dried fruits, yogurt, and cheese, which she continues to do at home in her Kettner Boulevard kitchen. When I arrived, the kitchen island was spread with a beautiful array of traditional dishes — perfectly rolled dolma stuffed with fish, soft white cheese called qatik, fragrant rose jam, pickled cabbage and apples, and tandoori bread. Leyla turned on the gas under a bright red qazan — a cooking pot — and started heating the plov, a rice dish she had prepared.
“I hope you’re hungry,” she smiled.
Leyla and Alex, now proprietors of two (going on three) San Diego restaurants, bring many Azeri elements to the fare they offer their customers, adding touches of their home country to the rich offerings of California’s farms. In Azerbaijan, lamb is a staple, so Leyla features it on her menu in several preparations. When we dined in the restaurant, my husband and I sampled a succulent version atop a house-made potato pancake. There’s a kufta kebab and an apricot-braised shank, too. (We couldn’t try everything.) But we did really like the portobello fries and beet hummus. Azeri-style spices and piquant pickled cabbages accompany seasonal fruits and vegetables in many of the menu items.
These unique dishes seem to please the local palate: Cafe 21 on Adams Avenue in University Heights proved popular enough that Leyla and Alex decided to add a second location in 2011, in a tiny space on Fifth in the Gaslamp. The opportunity to move down the block to their current Gaslamp location, where Croce’s used to be, came this year. They opened in May. Leyla and Alex will also retain the small Fifth Avenue location and put in another restaurant there.
“Nature’s Kitchen,” as Leyla calls her concept, “means what’s seasonal, what’s local, what’s available. In Azerbaijan, that’s the norm — eat it when it’s ready and pickle or preserve the extra for later. Here in California, though we as a state do grow a wide variety of crops, we also import so many things to meet demand that it’s hard to tell what’s in season when. And where it comes from.”
Leyla and Alex’s Azeri roots show not only in the fare but also in the decor of the newest Cafe 21 location. The custom-made metal chandeliers, three feet across, echo design patterns from classic Islamic architecture. The textiles on the booths are a vibrant mix of patterns that reminded Leyla of carpets made in a mountainous region of Azerbaijan. Shelves on the restaurant’s walls display colorful house-made pickles, and hand-pressed juices line a table in the entryway. A small Azerbaijani flag waves from a shelf, next to a samovar.
Though it was “Happier Hour” when I visited the Gaslamp location and the dinner crowd was just trickling in after a hot day, it was impossible to ignore the appetizing aromas wafting through the air and the gorgeous plates piled with bright, fresh bites.