Those of you who have been following my blog know my immense love for Cafe 21. It is a love affair which begins several years ago, almost immediately in fact, after my first bite. As the years fly by, that location soon becomes a vital part of my life, providing so many fulfilling memories for my friends and I. We always leave with a stomach full of delicious food, perhaps, a tad intoxicated by the creative cocktails and sangria, but always extremely happy and satisfied.
That is many years ago, and through time, as time often does, takes on a new meaning, a new journey if you will, towards bigger and better things. This is certainly the case with Cafe 21, who now resides in its new spot just a block or so away from its previous Gaslamp location.
Cafe 21 is one of those restaurants which I feel has been with me through my life’s journey the last four to five years. I doubt this love affair will ever end. I’ve been waiting to visit the new place and am excited to see what it looks like. As I eagerly wait across the street, I see it is busy with people, and a warm fuzzy feeling comes over me.
The decor is stunning, and my photos definitely do not aptly capture the essence of its entirety, or the soul of owners Alex and Leyla Javadov. You will have to take my word for it until you have the opportunity to step inside and experience it for yourself.
There are traces of the Javadovs’ Azerbaijani roots, mostly visible in the upstairs “loft” area, but overall, the chic and modern decor is exactly what 2014 calls for. Besides the loft, there is a patio, bar and dining room area — a different experience can be had depending on where you sit, but it will always be one that is etched in your memory long after your belly is full, days and months down the road.
It is morning, but that does not stop some people from enjoying a cocktail or two. Cafe 21 is famous for its house-made sangrias — six are available on any given day — take a peek when you walk in the door. If you are not able to make up your mind, you partake in a flight for a taste of them all.
Another popular cocktail is the signature Bloody Mary — there are four to choose from — here’s a glimpse of the Prawn Star ($15) and the California Greenin ($15) which uses a tomatillo mix created in-house.
However, it is too early to drink alcohol, so we start with some Loose Leaf Tea ($4) — you choose either hot or cold. Of course we choose the latter. A variety of Scottish Caramel Pu-Erh, Raspberry Lavender and Green Sencha arrives. I love the vessels they come in.
Once the tea has enough time to steep, position it over a large glass and release the tea over the ice and voila, your ice tea is ready! The server is happy to provide this service, but I am like a child in a candy store.
The caramel pu-erh is intoxicating. The deep amber liquid is sweet to the nose, and rich on the palate. I buy some to take home for another day.
I am mesmerized by the teapot, so when our next round arrives, I want to photograph the procedure once again!
The first of our meal comes to the table, Blueberry Pancakes ($11 choice of 3 short stack or 5 full stack) is on the ubiquitous stainless steel platter Cafe 21 is known for. These are fluffy and delicious. The house-made blueberry compote is not overly sweet, retaining the natural flavors I so love. They are generous with the butter, but you don’t have to use it all.
The Shrimp Cast Iron Omelet ($13) is an ideal brunch item comprising eggs and a protein of your choice. We choose pesto marinated shrimp which nestles atop, and in between the light fluffy eggs, along with tomato, spinach, pesto sauce, feta and mozzarella.
There are specials every single day and on this particular one, the Stuffed Flatbreads ($15 choose two out of three options) is a recommendation I, at first, am hesitant to order. However, a little bit of convincing later and I am enamored by both the vegetarian selections. Cheesy organic spinach with pesto, goat cheese, feta and mozzarella cheeses is vibrant, however, it is the creamy potato and onion with locally grown cauliflower that wins hands down all around. The lilac hues of the cauliflower peek through when you cut into the flatbread, but it is robust aromas of this cruciferous vegetable that blows our minds.
We are quite full by now, but there are two more items to hit the table. Lagman Pulled Pasta ($14) with hand-pulled pasta, bell peppers, tomato, onion, butter sauce with lamb meatballs (not listed, but you are able to choose this protein) — more like a dinner item than a brunch due to its sheer volume. I am only able to take a bite. I wish my stomach is bigger, but the lamb meatballs are seasoned perfectly and the vegetable accoutrements colorful and inviting.
Seared Grouper Sandwich ($14), another special of the day sees a generous piece of fish sandwiched between a brioche bun along with lettuce, tomato, onion, chipotle aioli and a side of your choice. Again, I only manage a bite.
I am always so happy when I leave here, and especially so when I am able to introduce new people to this extraordinary eatery. Whenever any of my friends ask for a San Diego recommendation, I always say Cafe 21. In fact, last week, while dining at Tavern on 2 in Long Beach, a couple sitting next to us overhears me talking about Cafe 21 and interjects. They tell me about their visit back in March and how amazing it is. This is exactly the thing I like to hear. If you haven’t yet experienced Cafe 21, do it soon. It is so worth it.
802 5th Avenue
San Diego, CA 92101