Georgians – that is, Georgians who hail from the former Soviet republic and not the American South – love their cheesy khachapuri and their beef-and-lamb-filled khinkali. At a glatt kosher restaurant, however, dairy items and meat items can’t mingle, either in the kitchen or in the dining room, and many such establishments serve only one or the other.
Marani takes a second approach: two kitchens, two dining rooms, two sets of dishes. It’s possible to enjoy a progressive dinner under a single roof, first with khachapuri in a basement bakery that resembles a spartan pizzeria, then with a succession of appetizers, skewers and entrees in the more formal setting upstairs. There is another kosher Georgian restaurant, the hostess once told us, that goes to similar lengths; dining there requires a flight to Tel Aviv.
It’s easier to ride to Rego Park, a Queens neighborhood that’s home to a large Jewish population. In the years following World War II, many Jews immigrated to Rego Park and to nearby Forest Hills from what are now Russia and Georgia. The dissolution of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s prompted another wave of immigration from newly independent Central Asian republics, especially Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. It’s not uncommon, as you wander the streets, to encounter signs in Cyrillic script and overhear conversations in Russian.
English, rest assured, will serve you just fine at Marani. But beware: the aroma of fresh cheese bread, baked to order, can lead to overindulgence on the khachapuri leg of your expedition. We always wrestle with the temptation to order one of each ($8 to $13): the platter-shaped imeruli; its extra-cheese-on-top cousin, megruli; the square-ish, folded-over penovani; and the acharuli. The shape of the last suggests a kayak, with an egg yolk, adrift in runny cheese, where the paddler would be; eat it by stirring yolk into cheese, then tearing off bits of the oblong bread to dip in the goo.
Khachapuri cheese is salty, in some cases a bit sour, and so a bottled soft drink (half-liter, $4) really hits the spot. Choose from the pale cream soda, the golden pear or our favorite, the strikingly green tarragon.
In the downstairs parlor, you’ll drink from plastic cups befitting the plastic plates, plastic cutlery and paper napkins. Upstairs, after you transfer your check to the main dining room, you’ll appreciate the sparkle of your soda from a proper drinking glass – but perhaps, instead, you’d like to look over the wine list. Georgia is celebrated for its vineyards, and marani means “wine cellar.”
On to more food, and to a vast and varied bill of fare: sliced fried eggplant decked out with pomegranate seeds; baby beet leaves bound by walnut paste; ground-meat lula kebabs; chicken tabaka, pan-fried and garlicky; chakapuli, tarragon-laced, on-the-bone braised lamb; and khinkali (six for $18). These bear a passing resemblance to Shanghainese xiaolongbao, particularly in the juiciness of their beef-and-lamb filling – but khinkali are heftier and eaten out of hand. The standard approach is to grasp the topknot, flip the dumpling upside down, shake on some black pepper and nibble away. We’re not shy about cradling ours in two hands to capture every single moist tidbit. Stop when you reach the topknot, which, traditionally, is deposited at the edge of the plate. (We’ve heard stories, elsewhere in the city, of hours-long sessions that combine vodka-drinking and khinkali-eating, in which the accumulated topknots are a measure of one’s capacity. But these are only stories.)
You’ll remember that we cautioned you about overindulgence. With regret, we’ve leaned back at our upstairs table and wished, far too late, that we had swapped out one of those khachapuri for a nice green salad. We’ve never left room for Marani’s desserts, but don’t let us stop you!