We have reservations elsewhere on the day we make our way down to San Diego. However, even though we are more than 30 minutes early, we are unable to find a parking spot due to Little Italy’s weekly farmer’s market in full swing. As our reservation time draws near, I call the restaurant and inform them we are not able to join them.
Our next course of action is to head to the Gaslamp and try our luck at the new Cafe 21, but of course, when we arrive, there is a crazy line with at least an hour’s wait. No way! I ask if their new concept Zymology 21 is open and am delighted to hear it is, so we cross the street to the old Cafe 21 spot and step into Zymology 21.
The space is empty except for one table, no wait at all. On the day of our visit, the restaurant is not officially open — soft opening stage — which explains why there is no one there. The concept here is different. You are given a menu and ordering is done before you sit down. It’s a fast casual concept with a sit-down feel. I can still see hints of the old Cafe 21 here and there, but ultimately, the environment is completely revamped, with an updated, and uber cool vibe.
The definition of “zymology” is simply, “a science that deals with fermentation”, and here, you will find that this refers to the process of at least one ingredient in each dish or libation. Naturally, we begin with one of their fantastic cocktails, BloodieZ ($9) a bloody Mary that’s unrivaled, even from some of the most distinguished establishments around. It is served in a beaker, on a tray, accompanied by a test tube of beet juice. Use it or don’t, it’s up to you. A skewer of garnishes including olives, half a jalapeno, watermelon cucumber and micro carrot is very pretty.
Whiskey Sour ($11) using Old Forester whiskeym with an egg white foam, is also presented in a beaker — you will find almost everything has that scientific approach here — but snap your photo quickly, otherwise, the lemon rind garnish will sink rapidly through the foam and end up like my photo, to be no where in sight. Surprisingly, I really enjoy this!
None of us are real coffee drinkers, but the Syphon Coffee ($8) is too unique to resist. We order one to share. The truth is, we want to experience it more than drink it, although we enjoy the high-quality, full-bodied roast.
The first thing which catches our eye is Shrimp N Gritz ($15), comprising grilled sweet shrimp marinated in garlic. It sits on top of home style parmesan herb, creamy grits and surrounded by fried julienned leeks. The shrimp is incredibly fresh and I couldn’t help but suck on the heads, enticing all the shrimp butter out of its shell. The grits are creamy and the leeks provides a crispy contrast.
Chicken and Wafflez ($14) is always a good choice, but here, you will not be getting it in the traditional style you’re accustom to. I select dark meat (you can choose white) chicken, which is fried crispy on the outside and very moist on the inside. It reminds me of Indonesian-style fried chicken, although the seasonings are nothing like it. The waffle is a house-smoked gouda and herbs egg waffle — like those I remember eating from a street stall in Hong Kong as a child. The spicy lime honey glaze is unique, but only a touch is enough for me. There is a runny fried egg as well, but the waffle and chicken are enough to satiate even without.
Our next dish is Hay Hash ($16). I am not impressed when it hits the table, however, looks are deceiving. The rosemary potatoes confit are rich in flavor, while the seared steak loin is perfectly tender. The poached egg runs into the herb scented Hollandaise sauce adding a heavenly richness all around. I can not stop eating the potatoes which is a surprise because I’m not usually a big fan of it.
There are several open face sandwiches on the menu and I’m guessing these will rotate as the days go by. On the day of our visit, we select OpenFaceZ: Duck Rillettes ($6) braised duck topped with pickled cucumber, baby carrots, whole grain mustard sauce and pickled onion. It is decent and well-balanced.
However, it is the Fungi Trifecta ($6), a blend of lobster mushrooms, cremini mushrooms and oyster mushrooms on top of a French beluga lentil pate, which garners the most ooos and ahhs. The natural umami of the mushrooms is enough to tantalize the palate, everything else is icing on the cake.
While we are not in the mood for dessert, we are definitely intrigued by the PopsicleZ ($9) which are sangria popsicles. The flavors change weekly and we are presented with the two: apple with beer back and tropical (peach) with wine back. I am a fan of Cafe 21’s sangrias and to find them in a popsicle is not only whimsical, but completely calls out to my love of frozen treats.
I am sure the next time I visit Zymology 21, the menu will be different and it will be a completely new experience. This is why my love of the “21” brand stays true because it is constantly evolving and never boring.
750 5th Avenue
San Diego, CA 92101