A few months ago, I had the pleasure of having brunch here and walked away with it etched clearly on my mind for months to come. I recently came back for dinner, not once, not twice, but THREE times and was equally impressed by Cafe 21‘s dinner menu and am now fully convinced that this restaurant is a force to be reckoned with.
We began with something I highly recommend you order — the Sangria Sampler ($). We had this when we visited for brunch, but they change the sangrias almost daily so you will find new ones whenever you return. One of my favorites this time was a pumpkin spice and also, a pear fig.
a couple of salads, Grilled Pear Salad ($11) with mixed greens, butter grilled fresh pear, almond slivers, dehydrated cranberries, feta cheese tossed in a house honey balsamic dressing was light and delicious. What stood out was the warm grilled pear pieces which gave a great contrast to the greens on the plate.
I loved the Heirloom Tomato Salad ($11). Wild arugula, organic heirloom tomatoes, grilled sweet corn, red onion, garlic house croutons with sweet wine vinaigrette came together perfectly. The corn brought some sweetness while the red onions gave it a slight kick. I ordinarily do not like croutons, but these were absolutely welcoming on the plate giving each mouthful a nice crunch.
Appetizers such as Grilled Prawns with Baked Feta ($14) are large enough for a meal if you’re not terribly hungry as the portion was quite generous. A large grilled prawn sits on top of baked feta cheese with a piece of grilled fresh bell pepper and heirloom tomato slice topped with watercress garnish. Make sure you take a little of everything and construct it into one mouthful. I loved this dish! Served with grilled bread which you can choose to eat or not to. I couldn’t resist because the feta was just addicting on the bread.
Avocado Fries ($8) using gluten free rice flour as coating made a wonderful breading for the avocado slices. Served with goat cheese aioli and chipotle pepper aioli — I liked the latter better — the fries were crispy on the outside and creamy soft on the inside.
The entrees here are remarkable. Looking at this humble little cafe, you wouldn’t believe you were getting food of THIS caliber. Azerbaijani Kabob Platter ($27) is an homage to the owners’ homeland. Zatar seasoned steak kabob, lamb sausage kofta and marinated chicken skewers are mildly seasoned. I would’ve liked a heavier sprinkling of zatar. The apricot pumpkin couscous and housemade pickled vegetable are great additions on the plate. Served with homemade bread and a schmear of avocado pesto, beet hummus and black eyed pea hummus.
Wild Stuffed Quail ($27) was something I had seen on the menu from my previous visit and I was eager to try it. The quail is stuffed with goat cheese and served with brown rice. There is also pancetta and portobello mushroom topped with house cherry sauce and balsamic glazed vegetables. If you’re not a fan of goat cheese, don’t order this because it enhances the gaminess of the bird. Tender, moist and very flavorful for those who do love it.
One of the favorites was Grilled NY Steak ($29), perfectly grilled medium rare New York strip served with fresh horseradish mashed Kennebeck potatoes, grilled organic cauliflower and peppercorn cream sauce. The cauliflower was so good I wish I had wanted double of this and foregoing the mashed potatoes.
My absolute favorite of the night was Whole Grilled Sea Bass ($27) a fresh grilled whole fish with house style basmati rice pilaf, lavash bread, topped with Kalamata white wine cream sauce with tomatoes. Honestly I didn’t need the lavash bread at all. The whole fish was so tantalizing I didn’t want anything else interfering with my eating. The Kalamata olives and tomatoes were the ideal pairing for the fish. Simply sublime!
Finish off with Creme Brule Cheesecake ($8). The cheese cake totally tasted like creme brulee with caramelized sugar over the top and sliced up fresh strawberry. I loved the crystallized texture over the top of the gooey rich cheesecake.
Or, the seriously delicious Pumpkin Cheesecake which, of course is seasonal, but SO worth it. The pumpkin chiffon on top is airy and light and the cheesecake rich and decadent. The ginger graham cracker crust is also crumbled around the plate giving it more crunch. I absolutely loved it!
If you live in San Diego and haven’t been to Cafe 21 yet, then shame on you! If you’re in Orange County, well, it’s really not THAT far. There are so many restaurants to discover down in San Diego, but this is one place I’ve returned to time after time again because I always walk away happy.
750 5th Avenue
San Diego, CA 92101