Brunch at Solace and the Moonlight

There’s nothing better than a weekend getaway complete with really good food. However, you don’t even need to actually “get away” to drive to Encinitas for weekend brunch. From the center of Orange County, it should only take about an hour before you’ll be in this quaint little town dotted with thrift stores and coffee houses.

The restaurant is a little hard to see sitting almost right on the train tracks between Coast Hwy and Vulcan along E Street. I circled around several times before finding a spot on the street two blocks away. Once inside, you’ll be sitting on the deck of Chef Matt Gordon’s Solace and the Moonlight enjoying a leisurely meal while basking in the sun.

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We started our Sunday brunch (it is also offered on Saturdays) with some Warm Cheddar & Chive Biscuits ($7), made in-house and served with a fragrant orange honey butter, and a piquant smoked tomato jam.

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I am so happy to see non-traditional brunch items featured as well. Fried Green Tomatoes ($11) are perfectly crispy on the outside with a lovely corn meal crust. The slices sit on top of a thick-chop chimichurri topped with salsa fresca and drizzled with a creamy ancho chile aioli. We enjoy it tremendously and agree it is a great plate for the table to share.

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I will most often than not order mussels when I see them. The menu’s Steamed Black Mussels ($14) comes in a smoked tomato butter, however, it is rather deceiving because even though there might be butter in the sauce, it is not a butter. In fact, it is a luscious smoked tomato soup which we eat with a spoon, after we’ve finished off the plump meaty mussels. Not to waste any of it, we then soaked up the remainder with the toasted baguette slices from one of San Diego’s premier bakeries, Bread & Cie.

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There were two soups available: Clam Chowder ($4 cup/$5.50 bowl) with bacon, clams, potatoes and topped with a crispy house-made oyster cracker garnish is decent, however, it was the Creamy Tomato-Fennel Soup ($3.50 cup/$5 bowl) which won me over. The Aleppo pepper crema drizzled on top adds a slight kick to the beautifully tart soup.

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What I love about Solace and the Moonlight is that there is something for everyone. If you’re wanting a hefty meal, or trying to nurse that hangover with something incredibly substantial, then their signature Kitchen Sink ($14.50) is definitely your choice. The sausage gravy is infused with smoked paprika, cayenne, ancho chile and chipotle, giving it layers of flavor, without adding too much heat. There is only a hint from the cayenne at the end which is good news for those who aren’t fans. If you don’t order the cheddar biscuits, then you’ll enjoy it on this plate along with runny fried eggs, Niman Ranch pork sausage and brown sugar slab bacon.

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Pescatarians can choose Wild Sockeye Salmon Benny ($16) served on cheddar biscuits with poached Eben-Haezer eggs, sauteed spinach, ancho chile Hollandaise and breakfast potatoes. I loved everything about this dish except the skin left on the salmon. It is not seared, therefore, does not impart a crispy element to the dish, and adds fishiness to the final product.

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Your server will tell you to order the Best Darn Buttermilk Cinnamon Roll ($3.75) because they run out, usually by noon. The cream cheese icing is ample and the Butter Pecan Sauce ($1) sweet. I suggest asking to have it on the side.

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But it is the Lemon Ricotta Pancakes ($10.50) which blows this non-sweet palate away. Fluffy, light pancakes are hinted with lemon and moreso enhanced by the strips of candied lemon zest tossed on top. Fresh raspberries are always the best pairing for lemon and there are a few thrown in for good measure. I did not even need the maple syrup to enjoy these absolutely delightful pancakes.

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Regardless how big or large your group is, there is something for everyone, including various areas to sit in. We loved the “spool” table on the patio and I would like to sit on the large community table on a future visit with a group of friends. Service is great and the atmosphere inviting. Now, I’ll have to come back and try the dinner menu!

Solace and the Moonlight
25 E East Street
Encinitas, CA 92024
Tel: 760-753-2433

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visiting the original Cafe 21

Two years ago, I was introduced to Cafe 21 at Gaslamp and fell in love with it instantly. Since that initial visit, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve returned to it, each time with gratifying meals shared with friends and loved ones. So it was indeed an exciting day for me to visit Cafe 21’s original location at University Heights and introducing my best friend to it for the first time! I’d been raving about the food ever since that first time and now it was time to share it.

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This location is cozy and ever so quaint. I’ve always loved the eclectic nature of Cafe 21 and here, it is even more evident with vivid Moroccan and Turkish themes throughout. Naturally, we began with some cocktails — even though it was lunch — and I suggested one of their famous Sangrias ($9/glass) made in-house….. I, on the other hand, opted for their green Bloody Mary ($14) made with green tomatillo, instead of the traditional tomato juice base, infused with spicy vodka.

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I had seen a photo of the Cafe 21 Breakfast Board ($17) on Facebook the day before, and couldn’t get my mind off it. Therefore, it was the only way to kick off our brunch that day. Two pieces of filet mignon, house-cured salmon, beet infused egg, Venissimo cheeses: Big Rock Blue (from Paso Robles) and Bucherondin (one of the first French goat cheeses exported to the US), pistachios, cranberries, rhubarb compote and lavash complete the platter. I love the presentation, staying true to the Moorish theme.

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Flight of Mimosa ($18) at the next table caught our eye and of course it was too pretty to miss out on.

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I have enjoyed the Cafe 21 “cakes” before but never the Chicken Curry ($13) option. Shredded roasted chicken breast tossed in yellow curry, bits of celery, red onion and saffron cream sauce was delicious as is, but topped with two perfectly runny poached eggs? That made it as decadent as it was tasty. We both oooo-ed and ahhh-ed as we took a mouthful proclaiming it one of the best things we’ve ever eaten. The oozing poached eggs were just the icing on the cake (no pun intended).

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I love Dutch baby pancakes and here, they offer it two ways. Savory Cast Iron Pancake ($11) is baked with house made sausage, bell peppers, onion, tomato, rosemary and goat cheese served with a house made ajika (red pepper sauce). Reminiscent of a mix between a pancake and quiche, the texture was very pleasing and ajika adds another level of depth to the dish. It keeps well too so take your leftovers home for the following day!

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The sweet version — Drunken Cherry Cast Iron Pancake ($14) — is a Dutch-style pancake baked with Bourbon soaked cherries and served with a tart raspberry sauce. The pancake itself wasn’t sweet which totally appealed to my palate. The raspberry sauce was more like a puree than a sauce and was perfect as an accompaniment for the pancake, but we were discussing how it would be great over some vanilla ice cream as well.

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We were stuffed, but ended the meal with Creme Brulee Cheesecake ($8) something I’m more than familiar with. I’ve had it the traditional way and also, pumpkin style during the holidays. The version here has a layer of custard giving it a different mouth-feel which we both liked a lot. The side of Blackberry Cabernet Sorbet ($4) was incredibly refreshing and a perfect end to the perfect meal.

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Although both locations have almost an identical menu, you will find several dishes exclusive to each location. I’m excited for the new Gaslamp location in a few months, and will definitely return to see what it has in store for all of us who love this place so much.

Cafe 21 — North Park
2836 Adams Avenue
San Diego, CA 92116
Tel: 619-640-2121

Cafe 21 on Urbanspoon

one big party at Bagatelle

When I heard we were going to Bagatelle for Sunday brunch, I was like “okay, brunch”. I knew very little about the whole thing until the morning of when I decided to look on the website and glanced at their Yelp page. So there is a location in New York, and another in Miami. Wait a minute….. people are scantily dressed and dancing on tables?

We arrived early and were greeted by gorgeous ladies who escorted us to our table. There was a DJ and music was playing in an opulent dining room decked out in chandeliers and luxurious white throughout.

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Our server David (absolutely gorgeous and reminded me of a younger John Stamos) asked us if we’ve been before to which we said no. He smiled and informed us that we’re in for a treat. He also told us we should hang around until at least 2pm which was when things would “heat up”.

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As I watched all these groups of women stream in, dressed to kill, in fact, all decked out ready to go clubbing, hair all done, heels, short short dresses, the only thing I was thinking was “please don’t let the food suck”.

Luckily there is an extensive list of drinks and I’m a huge lover of cocktails so I tell David to tell the mixologist to make me something with tequila or mezcal.

I don’t particularly remember every detail of our drinks but here’s what we sipped on throughout the afternoon. Girl from LimaBajan Groove ($16); Grey Goose La Poire, Thai basil, cucumber, mint, coconut water, falernuml; Iligal Anejo mezcal, avocado, green tea, oregeat, lime; Louisiana with absinthe; Death In The Afternoon variation: squid ink, absinthe, vanilla, pineapple juice, lemon; Carter Meets The Devil variation: mezcal, dos amadillos silver, serrano, lime, agave, lime juice; Milkshake drink with absinthe.

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My favorites were the Girl from Lima and Iligal Anejo with avocado which I downed within 2 minutes because it was SO delicious! We thank award winning Mixologist Zach Patterson for all these creations.

Our first dish arrives, a suggestion of David’s. Endive Salad ($12) was actually rather pleasing not only aesthetically, but also, on the palate. Blue cheese, candied walnuts, strawberries in a champagne vinaigrette made for a summery and fresh start with the sweet crunch of the nuts to add a nice contrasting component.

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Tuna Tartare ($18/$28) is perfect for sharing. Yellow-fin tuna is dressed well atop mashed avocado in a soy citrus vinaigrette bath. I couldn’t stop eating this simple yet delightfully addicting salty tart composition dolloped on the taro chips served alongside.

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So far, I was rather pleased by everything, but most of all, the clubby music and the general fun vibe of the room. Gorgeous servers waltz around the packed room making sure everyone is well cared for and that we never were without a drink in front of us. The table next to us were just partying it up!

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I’m generally not a fan of hash, but Short Rib Hash ($18) changed my mind about both short rib and also, hash. Twice cooked potato and bell pepper is combined with confit onions in a sumptuous braising jus, all of which is topped with a runny poached egg. The braised short rib was not only tender, but the flavors, sinfully rich and the oozing yolk just took it to a whole new level.

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Lobster Benedict ($35) didn’t look like much but the sauteed lobster was delightfully sweet and the big lumps were rather generous over the English muffin. The soft poached hen egg and hollandaise were just icing on the cake. I highly recommend this and would order it again without hesitation.

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The only sweet item we had was the Brioche French Toast ($15). I didn’t think I’d like it, but then, it was light and not overly sweet and that appealed to me. The homemade strawberry-maple marmalade was well paired with the whipped creme fraiche. Obviously, I didn’t stop at just one bite.

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I did however order a side of the Applewood Smoked Bacon ($12). How could I resist?

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Service was awesome and food was really, really good. In fact, I’ve been telling all my friends about it and am in the process of trying to organize a bunch of gals together for a Sunday brunch to remember! I had the time of my life that afternoon — it was SO MUCH FUN! But don’t take my word for it, make a reservation and go see for yourselves. I would like to point out though, it is definitely more fun for a group of gals than a group of guys purely because the eye candy is predominantly of the male persuasion!

Bagatelle
755 N La Cienega
Los Angeles, CA
Tel: 310-659-3900

Bagatelle on Urbanspoon

a little bit of San Francisco in RSM

I’m still trying to catch up after the holidays and it’s not been easy disciplining myself to buckle down and start writing. One of the restaurants that’s long past due for a review is Embarcadero in Rancho Santa Margarita. Now, everyone I’ve mentioned this place to has been responding with “huh? where? what?”

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Yes, Rancho Santa Margarita sounds far, but isn’t really. It’s just a little bit past Mission Viejo and if you already live out that way, then you’re already there! Why not pop on over and check them out?

Chef/owner George Valdovino is passionate about what he serves his guests. His cuisine is themed after the diversity of cultures you find in San Francisco — hence, the name Embarcadero! We left our evening’s meal up to Chef Valdovinom, allowing him to prepare for us what he felt best reflected his menu.

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** please note photos may not reflect the a la carte portions**

We began with Wedge Tower ($10), a chunk of romaine heart topped with grilled zucchini, feta cheese, cherry tomatoes and drizzled with, pesto vinaigrette and a house-made ranch dressing.

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Maine Lobster Grilled Cheese ($16) featuring sharp cheddar cheese and large chunks of lobster between toasted sourdough bread. Personally I felt the lobster chunks were way too big, but you definitely won’t be complaining about the lack of this tasty crustacean. This was served with a perfectly tart tomato bisque.

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Pan Seared Halibut ($28) is perfectly executed. Moist, flaky fish atop of smoked mozzarella polenta cakes, corn chowder and asparagus topped with micro-greens. The cream sauce is not too heavy and the corn makes for a nice hint of sweetness.

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I totally loved the Pan Seared Scallops ($26) which were accompanied by the most delicious Andouille sausage succotash. There was edamame tossed in, giving it both color and texture. I would love this succotash as an available side dish to go with other entrees!

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Meat lovers will like the New York Steak ($28) served with a side of delightful Brussels sprout slaw. The red wine reduction is flavorful and rich and adds another level of depth to the meat.

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After that dinner, I couldn’t stop thinking about trying out the Sunday brunch they have here, but it wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I gathered a group of my friends together to check it out. At $19.99 per person it was a steal!

There were several salads including a tomato, mozzarella and basil with balsamic vinaigrette and another similar to Chinese chicken salad. Four salad dressings were also available for your choosing.

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I was especially enamored by the seared ahi tuna with cucumber slices and edamame served with a soy based sauce. I had quite a few portions of this and still wanted more.

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The other thing I eat a lot of at buffets are the ‘peel and eat shrimp‘. Here, they were a good size, large and plump, served with a house-made cocktail sauce. I would just come and eat a pound of this!

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My son is a bacon fiend and even before we arrived he said “there better be bacon mommy!” Lucky for him, there was applewood smoked bacon and these awesome sausages to be had. The latter was especially good — salty with a pleasing texture.

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Meat lovers will love the beef roast and baked ham. I’m not a fan of ham but I relished in the roast beef with some spicy horseradish!

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The salmon with pesto sauce was also surprisingly good. The fish was tender and moist — something not always achievable at a buffet.

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One of my friends loved the Eggs Benedict so much she had two portions. These aren’t the traditional kind but rather, topped with a chipotle based Hollandaise and layered with applewood smoked bacon instead of Canadian bacon or ham.

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There were a few more items like roasted potatoes as well as mac n cheese. I’m sure some of the items rotate from week to week, but everything was fresh, tasty and well prepared. I was very impressed by this spread for a mere $20! For $3 more, you can opt to have bottomless champagne or mimosas. The brunch buffet also comes with a soft drink of your choice, tea or coffee.

I hope you’ll make the trip out to RSM to check out Embarcadero. I have a $50 gift certificate generously donated by the restaurant for one of my readers to win. Leave me a comment with your full name and why you would be visiting Embarcadero in the near future. Entries run until Sunday, January 13. A winner will be announced on Monday. Best of luck!

Embarcadero California Bistro
22332 El Paseo
Rancho Santa Margarita, CA 92688
Tel: 949-709-2266

Embarcadero on Urbanspoon

a pampered Sunday brunch at Raya

No matter what the occasion is, Raya has always been a great joy to dine at. Call it the glorious view of the Pacific, call it the perfection of service, call it the delicious menu. No matter what you call it, the experience is always delightful.

We came here for brunch several Sundays ago and the first thing my son asked me was “will we see the ocean mommy?” I promised him he would and even offered him the best seat at the table facing the view. He had brought his own camera and was happily snapping shots of the blue ocean and everything else around him.

Our other brunching companion was The Hungry Dogg, and between the three of us, we were able to get a really great selection of what the menu has to offer. The brunch is $65 per person and encompasses a 3 course meal with champagne. I opted for iced coffee instead.

Our meal starts off with an Amuse Bouche of fruit cocktail, a vibrant bowl of seasonal fruits including beautiful berries bursting with color.

First courses include Sushi Trio, two pieces each of three different types of rolls including California spicy tuna and crunchy roll, served with ginger, wasabi and soy sauce.

The Shrimp and Crab cocktail was delicious. I’ve had the ceviche at Raya many times before and it is always incredible. The seafood is so sweet and fresh. Served with cocktail sauce, baja ceviche and louis sauce, this was my favorite.

Jamon Iberico arugula salad is a great way to showcase this flavorful ham. The addition of manchego cheese, toasted almonds, grapes, pickled mustard seeds tossed in a spicy balsamic vinaigrette is a light way to start.

I had mentioned that the service here was so outstanding that they will come and replace my iced coffee before I’ve passed the 3/4 mark on my glass (I’ve experienced this before with iced teas) and true to my words, another glass of iced coffee appeared in front of me shortly after. This is the kind of perfection one would expect from the Ritz-Carlton!

I was happy to see the entrees arrive as I was sipping on the iced coffee way too quickly — makes me very jittery. My son’s Wagyu Beef “Churrasco” was cooked to perfection. The grilled wagyu skirt steak was tender but with a good “chew factor”. I loved the grilled onions, and the mix of flavors from the achiote, chipotle hollandaise and chimichurri. Yuca fries was a welcoming change from the usual drab French fries generally served everywhere.

Chalupas Dungeness Crab Benedict was decent. The crab was the highlight of the entire dish. Corn, poached eggs, avocado and aji amarillo hollandaise accompanied, but didn’t stand out as much as I would have liked.

My choice was “Mano de Leon” Sea Scallops, which I’ve had before. It was a toss up between this and the Miso Alaskan Cod, which I’ve also had before. I’m glad I went with the scallops because they are always prepared to succulent perfection. Char siu pork belly added another dimension to the dish — not that it needed it. The only thing I didn’t care for was the cold sushi rice salad on the plate.

When it comes time for dessert, my first choice at Raya is always their house-made Cinnamon Spice Churros. These are cooked to order so they are hot when they arrive with a kahlua pot de creme and dulce de leche for you to either eat separately, or dip your churros in. I like mine au naturel and boy are these good!

I’m a sucker for bread pudding and the Chocolate Bread Pudding is a good choice with Jack Daniel’s, vanilla sauce and vanilla ice cream.

If you’re a fan of creme brulee, the Vanilla Creme Brulee is worth a try. The texture is spot on and the caramelization on top is of perfect consistency. Served with seasonal berries and coconut cookies. I am a huge fan of this creme brulee but if I had to choose one, the churros win hands down.

Sundays are meant for slow, leisurely activities and brunch at Raya is never hurried. You can sit and enjoy the view while you sip on another glass of champagne. No one will rush you, nor make you feel like you’re taking up valuable real estate — even though it IS pretty awesome with that view. Just relax and treat yourself and your loved ones to a very pampered experience.

Raya
at The Ritz-Carlton
1 Ritz-Carlton Drive
Dana Point, CA 92629
Tel: 949-240-2000

Raya at The Ritz-Carlton on Urbanspoon

a stunningly eclectic cafe in San Diego

I love restaurants with a great story behind it, and Cafe 21 has one of those stories which would make you want to go there right this minute. But before I get into that particular story, I want to say that even without it, you would want to go just purely because the food is pretty fantastic.

We are there for brunch over the weekend and the restaurant is packed. The buzz is incredible with a line gathered outside in the heat patiently waiting for a chance to eat something off this eclectic menu. The decor has hints of the owners’ homeland — Azerbaijan — but just enough to pay homage without being overwhelming. After all, the menu isn’t Azerbaijany, but rather, with influences to honor the heritage.

Husband and wife Alex and Leyla moved from Baku, Azerbaijan to San Diego and after their son was born, Leyla found herself at home baking for friends and neighbors to pass some of the time alone. Alex meanwhile was pursuing a BS in Hospitality Management and after graduating from SDSU,  worked at Barona Casino as the Food and Beverage Manager .

To cut a long story short, Leyla baked some baklava for friends who owned a Persian restaurant downtown — they LOVED IT — and she ended up providing them with it to sell in their restaurant. The extra money was great and it allowed them to fulfill their dream in 2007 when they opened Cafe 2121 at 2121 Adams Ave. Later that year, after relocating a few blocks up, the extra 21 was dropped to its current Cafe 21 moniker.

The experience here starts with a Signature Bloody Mary ($9) complete with olives, peppers, grilled prosciutto and spices — well at least for me it does! I can’t pass over a Bloody Mary no matter what. I usually request it extra spicy and on this day, I forgot, but luck would have it that the one here is already spiced up and perfectly seasoned. The grilled prosciutto made it a meal on its own, but I had to leave some room to sample a bite of everything we were ordering.

If you’re wanting a lighter libation, there are six different types of sangrias made in-house to choose from. We chose the Sangria Sampler ($21) Fruit Punch, Strawberry Basil, Traditional, Strawberry Pineapple, Lemon Rosemary, Peach Mint (goblet $9/$21 pitcher) to get a full range of what they were serving up. My favorites were Fruit Punch, Strawberry Pineapple and Peach Mint. Everything had that incredibly vibrant taste of muddled herb or fruit so it can be dangerously deceiving because it is so easy to drink.

There were a good number of sweet treats on the menu and Tiramisu Pancakes ($13) was one of them. My initial thought when they arrived was “holy… these look REALLY sweet”, but surprisingly, the mascarpone cream sauce, cocoa powder and maple espresso sauce came together really nicely without being oppressively sweet. The texture of the pancakes was what blew me away, so fluffy and light as air. Simply sublime!

If I liked the tiramisu ones, the Rhubarb Pancakes ($9) made me eat bite after bite — a seriously outstanding feat for those who know me well. I just don’t have a sweet palate. I ended up eating about four big mouthfuls much to the chagrin of myself and everyone else. I think the strawberries, together with the strawberry and rhubarb compote made it just heavenly. I love rhubarb and the pancakes were airy and very addicting.

Vegetarians have a lot of sweet choices, but if you’re wanting a savory one, the Spinach Crepe ($10) is definitely worth getting. Organic spoon spinach, basil pesto, mozzarella, and feta cheese stuffed inside a thin crepe makes it not only healthy, but tasty enough that non-vegetarians will love it too.

One of the house specialties is Short Rib Omelet ($14). This skillet omelette has fluffy egg (frittata style) dotted with bell peppers, grilled onions, blue cheese, mozzarella and topped off with tender, braised short ribs. The potato cake served alongside is to-die-for and if you don’t end up ordering something which comes with it, you can order it as a side. It is well worth it!!

One of my favorites was Shrimp Corn House Cakes ($13) with shrimp sweet corn potato cakes topped with two poached eggs and house made cilantro cream sauce. It was like a take on eggs Benedict, but such a delicious one. The sweet corn cakes were salty sweet and with the perfectly poached eggs oozing into the corn cakes I have only three words to describe it — mmm mmm mmm.

Finally, there is also a brunch menu only offered on weekends. We ordered the Turkish Lavash Rolls ($14), housemade flat bread rolled up and stuffed with tomato, onion, spinach, bell peppers, and mozzarella, then baked and topped with cheddar with your choice of chicken, turkey, salmon or veggies. Garnished with pesto and ajika (or adjika is a red pepper paste), this is one of those dishes relective of their Azerbaijany roots.

Service was outstanding. Our server was knowledgeable and very attentive making sure our meal was perfect. I am contemplating returning for dinner in the near future. They have a completely different menu at dinner which looks creative and unique, just like its breakfast/lunch menu. Cafe 21 is one of those little gems you must check out when you are down in San Diego next. Don’t let the wait scare you off, it is definitely worth waiting for!

Cafe 21
750 5th Avenue
San Diego, CA 92101
Tel: 619-795-0721

Cafe 21 on Urbanspoon

2736 Adams Avenue
San Diego, CA 92116
Tel: 619-640-2121

Cafe 21 on Urbanspoon