Sept. 15 2014 05:36 PM

Cafe 21's sister restaurant gets creative with fermented-fruit syrups

Louis Chavez
Louis Chavez
Photo by Kelly Davis

When Louis Chavez was tapped to create the cocktail menu for Zymology 21—sister restaurant to Leyla and Alex Javadov's popular Cafe 21 (locations in North Park and the Gaslamp Quarter)—shrubs seemed like the obvious way to go. Zymology, after all, is the study of fermentation, and shrubs are fermented syrups.

Mix fresh fruit, sugar and vinegar and let them sit for awhile, and you've got a shrub. In the 17th and 18th centuries, shrubs were used to flavor water or to mask the taste of poor-quality smuggled booze. Now, you're increasingly seeing them on craft-cocktail menus due to the popularity of house-made ingredients and because they add a nice acidity to a cocktail's flavor profile. 

Perhaps nowhere else in San Diego are shrubs highlighted more than at Zymology 21 (750 Fifth Ave., Downtown)—they're even part of the new restaurant's clever, chemistry-themed decor, with jars of shrubs-in-progress lining shelves near the entrance. The menu includes shrub flights: each of the five currently available shrubs, mixed with tequila or champagne. Keeping with the chemistry theme, the flights come in test tubes that are placed in a large beaker of dry ice to keep them chilled. Or, you can get a simple classic, like a vodka Collins or whiskey sour, made with your choice of shrub.

"It gets [people] educated to what shrubs are, what they taste like," Chavez says, "so they're kind of not afraid of them, because when people think of vinegar... they're, like, What?"  

The shrub-flight presentation is cool and all—beakers! dry ice!—but don't let it distract you from Zymology 21's specialty cocktails. 

Try the Equinox Fizz—a deconstructed take on a classic fizz, with Half Moon gin and an apple-blueberry shrub and topped with a tasty meringue-like foam of egg white and lemon honey. The Resurrectionist highlights the new, hip kid on the cocktail block, Grand Poppy liqueur from L.A.-based Green Bar distillery, and includes Tru gin (another Green Bar item), house-made Pimms, a cardamom-strawberry shrub, champagne and an absinthe spray. It's served with strawberries that also get an absinthe spray, followed by a quick hit from a blowtorch to really infuse the anise flavor. On the brunch menu is a bloody Mary that includes a shrub made with balsamic vinegar, beets, jalapeños and carrots. 

Not all cocktails here include shrubs. The Escuela Vieja, Chavez's take on an old fashioned, is made with a hickory-smoked mescal instead of bourbon and black walnut bitters instead of Angostura. It's the most spirit-forward on the menu and an exceptional cocktail. As an homage to the walnut bitters, it comes with a beaker of candied walnuts (described by one Zymology bartender as "crack").

Chavez, who came over from Cafe 21 to help open the new restaurant, says it was initially a bit intimidating to create a cocktail program that complemented Executive Chef Leyla Javadov's vision for Zymology 21.

"You have to have a drink that stands up with the food," he says. "We had to get really creative. It pushes us." 

Email or follow her on Twitter at @citybeatkelly.


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