elley Carlson“Nature’s Kitchen” has found a second home, in the middle of the city. Formally known as Café 21, the restaurant’s newest location has taken over the space formerly occupied by Croce’s in the Gaslamp Quarter.
Bedecked with Eurasian decor, the eatery reflects the heritage of owners Alex and Leyla Javadov, who hail from Baku, Azerbaijan. It’s an expansion of their cafe in University Heights that bears the same name.
At the Gaslamp site, guests have the advantage of watching people traipsing along Fifth Avenue from patio seats, or getting cozy inside as night descends and the lights dim.
But they enjoy the same types of foods — authentic yet modern, simple yet sophisticated, much of it inspired by the owners’ homeland. Azerbaijan is known for its use of vegetables and herbs in dishes, and the Javadovs collaborate with local farms to acquire such ingredients for their cuisine. They also purchase meats that are natural and hormone-free with no antibiotics.
Nothing at Café 21 is pre-made, noted Leyla Javadov, who is also a chef. “Everything is our own and made from scratch,” she said, from freshly squeezed lemonade and purees to sauces and flatbreads.
The day at Café 21 begins at 8 a.m. with an array of brunch items. One touted by patrons is the Tiramisu Pancakes with mascarpone cheese whip, cocoa powder and maple espresso syrup.
There are also cast-iron omelets in varieties such as Lamb Sausage, Garden Herb, Scallop and Salmon Diamonds; crepes; stuffed toast; and Café 21 Cakes (aka benedicts); plus house-made juices and mimosa flights that are offered all day long. And the Bloody Marys are practically meals themselves, such as the Classic Mary with grilled prosciutto, and California Green’in with vegetables and a grilled cheese sandwich skewer.
Mid-afternoon signifies the start of “Happier Hour,” when tapas are $5 each and there are specials on draft beers, house sangria, wines and cocktails. Among the offerings are vegetable fries: thickly cut, juicy portobello mushrooms; eggplant sticks that practically melt in the mouth; and large slices of avocado, all of which can be dipped in smoky chipotle aioli, goat cheese aioli and avocado pesto.
Flatbreads and large salads are among the dinner listings; a signature item is the Seasonal Chop Salad, a colorful assortment of ingredients in a hodgepodge of shapes and textures. Among the “standards”: spring mix, garbanzo beans, beet pickled eggs, heirloom tomatoes, avocado, poached fingerling potatoes, wild arugula and Green Goddess dressing. But the dish is ever changing.
Cafe 21’s top seller is the Stuffed Chicken Breast with a filling of baby spoon spinach, feta, mozzarella and pesto, and a side of toasted barley.
Another popular selection is the Rabbit Brine in a chili sauce, which is sweet due to the pineapple, yet also slightly spicy from the jalapeño.
To quench the thirst, there are organic teas that can be served hot or cold, such as the iced Green Mango Tango, which is refreshing on a warm day. Additional options include mojito flights and other libations. On the 21st of every month, customers can buy a sangria for 21 cents.
Café 21802 Fifth Ave., San Diego
(619) 795-0721 n cafe-21.com
The Vibe:Casual, upbeat, intimate
Signature Dishes:Seasonal Chop Salad, Mixed Fries, Azerbaijani Kebab Platter, Whole Grilled Seabass, Stuffed Chicken Breast, Apricot Braised Lamb Shank
Reservations:Dinner only, starting at 5 p.m.
Happy Hour:3-6 p.m. daily
Hours:8 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 8 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday
This week’s recipe:
Café 21’s Rabbit Brine : click link below