By Frank Sabatini Jr. | Restaurant Review
April Brandenstein loves playing with flavors. She’s also fond of showcasing local businesses whose culinary products fit the epicurean nature of her quaint cafe, a venture she says, “has been a dream of mine as far back as I can remember.”
Located on a low-key block of Adams Avenue in University Heights, the New York native opened Meraki Cafe in 2016 with the blessing of her Greek wife, Kat Gkiourda, whom Brandenstein calls “my number one supporter.” The women met years ago while traveling in Berlin. They later lived in Greece and San Francisco before planting roots in San Diego.
“Meraki,” Brandenstein explains, is a Greek term for when passion, creativity and soul are put into something. Indeed, what hubby and I consumed at the cafe on a recent Sunday afternoon lived up to that standard, starting with two hot beverages that included a jumbo latte spiked with soothing house-made “cardamom spice” syrup.
The syrups are made with natural ingredients and serve as optional sweeteners for the cafe’s Fair-Trade Equator Coffee drinks. They’re available in 10 flavors, such as star anise, orange-clove, basil, lavender and raspberry. So instead of sugar, why the heck not?
Among the non-caffeinated hot drinks is “golden milk latte.” It was love at first sip as the combined flavors of turmeric, coconut milk, honey, black pepper and other spices left us in a near-trance. The supposed anti-inflammatory properties of turmeric makes the drink all the more appealing. Cafe Gratitude in Little Italy offers a similar latte I always order. This, however, is bigger and tastier.
Brandenstein earned a culinary degree from The Art Institute of New York City. Her schooling and innate talent for cooking become obvious through exquisite combinations of ingredients you’ll find in many of the offerings.
Of her acai bowls, for example, she takes something terminally trendy and restores them with contrasting flavors and textures.
Case in point is the “acai autumn” bowl, where the South American berry (acai) appears in the form of thick sorbet and mingles with apples, cinnamon, pepitas, bacon and granola. What you get is a sweet-nutty-sour profile with occasional bursts of saltiness from the crumbled bacon. The differing flavors are fantastic. So are the smooth and crunchy textures that come in every spoonful.
Other acai bowls mix together strawberries, fresh-squeezed lime and Tajin seasoning; strawberries, basil and balsamic vinegar; and berries with goat cheese and almonds.
“I like to think outside of the box,” said Brandenstein. “And everything is made to order.”
Some of ingredients and products throughout the menu hail from Hillcrest businesses long supported by the LGBT community: Breads and pastries come from Bread & Cie; gluten-free breads are from Starry Lane Bakery; and bagels (served alone or in sandwiches) originate from Big City Bagels (BCB).
Other locally sourced products include empanadas from Empanada Kitchen Downtown; Mexican-style fruit pops from Viva Pops in Normal Heights; and macaroon ice cream sandwiches from GuilTea Cravings in Clairemont.
We didn’t leave without trying an artisan sandwich and the gluten-free waffle. The former offered pleasing mouthfuls of succulent chicken breast, earthy pesto and tangy artichoke leaves. Mozzarella and fresh tomatoes were also tucked inside the perfectly crusted whole-wheat torpedo roll.
Of all of the gluten-free dishes I’ve tried over the years, I never had a waffle with the wheat zapped out of it.
In a blind taste taste, I would’ve never known this was made with oat flour, maybe because it was liberally topped with fresh strawberries and bananas, and that we soaked it to death in butter and syrup (one of our common preferences that makes for a happy marriage).
Like the food, Meraki Cafe’s interior exceeded our expectations. It’s bigger than I imagined, and with an appealing design distinguished by white walls, clean lines and homey touches — kind of chic yet without a hint of stuffiness.
The property also features a sizable back patio replete with umbrella-covered tables, fruit and flower trees, and Zen-like décor. For fans of coffeehouses and kicked-back cafes, this is a precious gem that took us too long to discover.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of ‘Secret San Diego’ (ECW Press) and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.