Two restaurants introduce San Diegans to cuisine of Azerbaijan

If you haven’t yet discovered the Gaslamp’s Cafe 21 or its sister University Heights location, you’re in for a surprise.

When you first enter the Gaslamp restaurant, you’ll notice the colorful textiles, cut-out copper pendulum chandeliers and Islamic motif-inspired wall décor, all set against the original brickwork and Victorian ornamentation of the restored 1890 Keating Building, formerly home to Croce’s Restaurant.

Look deeper and you’ll see dispensers of colorful fruit-based drinks near the bar, used for creative mocktails and cocktails, open shelves filled with preserved fruits, vegetables and compotes and hammered copper and metal cookware. Nearby, a wooden trough displays tempting lemons and tangerines. All provide clues to the basic elements of Azeri cuisine, now gaining renown. Saveur Magazine recently dubbed this fare “the world’s last great undiscovered cuisine.”

The two restaurants are the creation of chef Leyla and Emran Javadov, a warm and friendly — and supremely hospitable — couple from Azerbaijan, a small country of about 9 million people tucked into the Caucasus Mountains. It’s a former Soviet republic bordering Russia, Iran, Georgia, Armenia and the Caspian Sea and known for its oil wealth and dazzling “starchitect”-designed modern buildings centered in its capital of Baku, which retains its UNESCO-designated medieval historic core.

Turkish and Persian influences on both the culture and cuisine remain strong, thanks to 600 years’ control under Islamic and Ottoman rulers following 400 years under the Persians. Other influences derive from Azerbaijan’s heritage as the crossroads of long-ago Silk Road trade caravans from China to Europe, numerous invasions and, more recently, from Czarist Russia and the country’s 70 years under Soviet control.

Among the cuisine’s riches are a panoply of Persian-inspired pilafs — the country boasts over 40 distinct variations — Turkish-inspired grilled meats and kebabs, Azeri versions of stuffed cabbage and grape leaves, plus pasta or dumpling dishes originating in China. Most typical is the country’s abundant produce, including pomegranates, cherries, apricots, walnuts, pistachios, citrus and vegetables galore, plus spices saffron and sumac, along with Eastern-influenced decadent pastries, including pakhlava and crepe cakes, providing a meal’s sweet finale.

When the Javadovs opened their first restaurant, they tried a predominantly Azeri menu, but diners didn’t understand the cuisine. They switched to a more approachable menu, described as “California casual modern,” which incorporates a sprinkling of Leyla’s own interpretations of Azeri dishes.

Among these are traditional favorites found in Middle Eastern and Eastern European “crossroads” cuisines including savory stuffed-pastry borek, beef and vegetarian-stuffed cabbage rolls, lamb and vegetarian-stuffed dolmas (stuffed grape leaves) and kebabs, plus a variety of Azeri-style rice pilafs.

Whenever possible, Leyla continues to use time-honored food preparation techniques, including buying and preserving fresh grape leaves from wineries for dolmas, while continuing to can fruit and vegetable preserves and compotes for nonseasonal use.

“It’s a very rich cuisine. We have our own ways of doing things,” Leyla said, explaining she enjoys blending East with West, old and new ways, while adding her own creative twists.

At the heart of Azeri cuisine is bread. Leyla bakes bread fresh daily, following the Javadov grandmothers’ practice of using a starter, based on a naturally occurring yeast in organic grapes, which takes 24 hours to rise, ensuring quality.

“In Azerbaijan, when we say ‘let’s go eat,’ it translates as ‘let’s go eat bread,’” she said.

While both grew up in Baku on the Caspian Sea, “in a neighborhood with 78 different nationalities,” Emran explained, their families have strong agricultural roots, reflected in the restaurant’s strong emphasis on fresh seasonal produce. Their grandparents had farms in the countryside outside Baku. They sent produce, eggs, homemade cheeses and yogurt as well as farm-raised meats and poultry to their families in the city. Many city dwellers grow standard root vegetables in their backyard gardens, Emran explained.

“Every house has a root cellar with storage for preserves and compotes. Even city people can everything. They go to the farmers markets to buy produce to can and preserve,” Leyla added. With Azerbaijan home to nine of the world’s 11 climate zones, the markets offer a wide variety of products.

“We have almost every fruit, very rich soil and varied climates,” she explained.

The Javadovs’ story of their immigration to San Diego is the classic tale of immigrants to America, melding home-country experience with business acumen to succeed in their adopted homeland. Neither spoke English on arrival, nor had they considered starting a restaurant.

Emran came first, in 1998, following his parents and sister, after his father won the green card lottery. He drove a cab and worked construction while learning English and earning a hospitality degree from San Diego State, supplementing his Azeri management degree.

Leyla, who studied design and business in Baku, arrived four years later, planning to go into interior design after their marriage. In Azerbaijan, she’d always loved to cook, preparing local dishes with family and friends for weddings and large celebrations, baking bread and cakes and conserving seasonal produce.

“After I had the baby, I started cooking at home, baking, making cakes, lots of cakes and pahklava,” she explained. Her baking quickly turned into a business with a strong local following, which led to opening their first restaurant, a small neighborhood restaurant on Adams Avenue.

“I’ve always loved food and enjoyed experimenting. I was always in touch with nature and art. I try to make our food art. I always want to make sure guests can also consume visually,” she explained. “Be a little bit brave, but don’t forget about your roots. You have to know the history of food and techniques.”

Now settled in Pacific Beach with their two children, they return regularly to Baku.

“She gains creative inspiration from returning to Azerbaijan,” Emran added.

The good news is that, thanks to the Javadovs’ efforts, San Diegans and visitors can now experience Azeri cuisine both through their restaurants and special cultural events.

Cafe 21 is located at 802 Fifth Ave. (Gaslamp) and 2736 Adams Ave. (University Heights).

Upcoming events at Cafe 21

Cafe 21 stages periodic evening events showcasing Azeri cuisine and culture, held jointly with the California-Azerbaijan Friendship Association.

Spring Nowruz celebration

When: Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m.

Cost: $85 per person (includes a nine-course Azeri dinner and Azeri music)

Azeri pastry class

Chef Leyla Javadov will demonstrate Azeri pastry making

When: Saturday, 3:30 to 6 p.m.

Cost: $75 per person

Reservations: www.cafe-21.com/event/azeri-novruz/all

Tomatoes and Eggs

In Azerbaijan this popular breakfast dish is called Pomidor Yumurta, meaning tomatoes and eggs.

Makes 2 servings

5 medium juicy tomatoes, skinned and chopped

3 tablespoons clarified unsalted butter

3 eggs

Salt and ground black pepper, to taste

In a frying pan or iron skillet, melt butter over medium heat. Add tomatoes and cook, uncovered, until the tomatoes break down and create one juicy mass. Break the eggs into a bowl and stir to mix. Pour the eggs evenly over the tomatoes. Season with salt and pepper. Cook, uncovered, until the eggs are cooked, about 5 minutes. Do not stir. Serve immediately, in the pan, with freshly baked bread.

Mangal Salad

The salad takes its name from the mangal, a traditional Azerbaijani barbecue. The mangal’s initial high flame is perfect to char the skin of the dish’s three main vegetables: tomatoes, green bell pepper and eggplant.

Makes 2 servings

3 tomatoes

3 green bell peppers

3 eggplants

1/2 cup cilantro, finely chopped

1/2 cup Thai basil, finely chopped

3 cloves garlic, minced

Salt and pepper to taste

Ignite a flame in your barbecue and char the skins of the tomatoes, peppers and eggplants. After charring, place the vegetables in cold water to ease skin removal. Chop them finely, place in bowl and mix with cilantro, basil and garlic. Add salt and pepper to taste. Served chilled.

Khan Pilaf

This was traditionally served as an extremely large dish for the ruling Khan and royal guests. This recipe is chef Leyla’s miniature version. Other versions incorporate dried fruit and nuts. While many recipes suggest using lavash or pita dough, Chef Leyla uses dough made with starter, organic flour, salt and water.

Makes 2 servings

1 pound chicken thighs, deboned and skinned

Water for poaching

Kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon oil

1 tablespoon butter

1 yellow onion, chopped

1 pinch saffron

1 cup white Basmati rice

4 ounces (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted, plus extra butter for buttering the baking dish

7 ounces yeast dough, starter (sourdough) dough or commercial puff pastry

Bring water to a boil. Add chicken, reduce heat to a simmer and poach until almost cooked, about 10-15 minutes. Cut into small pieces. Season well with salt and pepper. Heat oil and butter in a frying pan on medium high heat. Add onion and cook 5 to 7 minutes, stirring frequently, until golden brown. In a medium pot place rice in boiling water seasoned with salt and pepper, cooking rice just halfway before draining. Stir together the chicken, onions and saffron in a bowl, allowing the saffron to color them. Combine the chicken mixture with the rice and set aside.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Heavily butter the sides and bottom of a 1-quart ovenproof lidded baking dish or soup crock. Roll dough to 1/4-inch thickness and place it in the dish with dough ends extending over the edge of the dish. Place the chicken and rice mixture inside the dough and pour melted butter over it. Use the ends of the dough to cover the rice and chicken, wrapping the dough over the rice and chicken. Cover the dish and bake for 40 minutes. Remove the lid and bake for another 10 minutes for perfect crispness. Remove the dish from the oven and turn it upside down on the serving platter. The miniature Khan Pilaf should glide out onto your platter. Cut like a cake or pie.

No Mezcal (Cardamom Mocktail)

Serve in a goblet rimmed with cardamom-flavored sugar and a garnish of a caramelized prickly pear strip. To turn the mocktail into a cocktail, add 11/2 ounces mezcal, shake and strain into your goblet and garnish.

Makes 1 serving

1 1/2 ounces of cardamom syrup (recipe at right)

1/2 ounce lemon juice

2 ounces water

Ice

Caramelized prickly pear strip for garnish

In a cocktail shaker, shake cardamom syrup, lemon juice and water together and strain into a goblet. Top with fresh ice and add garnish.

Cardamom Syrup

2 cups sugar

1 1/2 cups water

10 black cardamom seeds

Place ingredients in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil and continually stir for 20 minutes. Strain and cool.

Recipes courtesy of chef Leyla Javadov of Cafe 21.

Larson is a San Diego freelance writer.

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