Last week we had a hankering for baked brains, and in Tbilisi that used to mean only one thing – a visit to Alani, the Ossetian restaurant near the sulfur baths in Old Tbilisi. The venue is named after the ancient North Caucasus kingdom of the Alans, ancestors of the modern-day Ossetians; one might think this unpopular in a country that lost a war against Ossetian separatists (and Russians) in 2008, but the fact that it is highly regarded is testament to Georgia’s paradoxically tolerant nature. Of course, it helps to have consistently quality cooking too.
To our disappointment, the waitress informed us that they were out of brains, so we lunched on Georgian fare of baked chicken tabaka and chakapuli, lamb stewed in tarragon and sour plums. And no meal at Alani is complete without a serving of its signature khabizgini, the Ossetian potato and cheese version of Georgia’s champion cheese bread, khachapuri.
For the next seven days, we continued to salivate at the idea of baked brains, so we suggested Alani for a dinner date with our friends yesterday. This time, however, a waitress who could be Tinkerbell’s double told us that there would be no brains that day or any other day. She offered no explanation. Disappointed, but not discouraged, we loaded up on the delicious chakapuli and khabizgini again and washed it all down with Alani’s own beer, a cloudy yet flavorful lager. Management boasts that you might find microbrews elsewhere in Tbilisi, but nothing is as natural as theirs. Dessert was a few shots of the house chacha, Georgia’s homemade version of grappa, which raised the hair on the back of our necks. The bill was surprisingly low, considering how much alcohol we all consumed.
Granted, like baked brains, Alani is not for everyone, although it certainly tries to be. Upstairs is “the brewery,” a beer hall with wooden tables and a few small private booths to the side. It can get a bit rowdy at times, with lots of shouting and backslapping between mouthfuls of khinkali, so we generally go to the retro dining room downstairs, a dark cellar adorned in Soviet-era ethno-Georgian reliefs with a front porch-like stage for the house band – a female singer and her male accompanist, who plays the keyboard by pushing the program for each song. The playlist is a mixture of Georgian and Russian estrada, Georgian folk and the occasional Sinatra for spice.
While Alani’s dining atmosphere might be too kitsch for some, it’s worth remembering that Tbilisi’s Old Town has largely been made over into a Disneyesque replication of itself. But nothing has changed in Alani’s 40-something-year history, excluding the renovated washrooms. In a neighborhood full of great restaurants, Alani holds its own, but its greatest attribute is its authenticity. In a private room a few meters away from us, a group was having a party around a table stacked with plates of food, making bold toasts with their own wine. One of the revelers approached us with a warm grin and stretched out his hand. “You like Georgian peasant wine?” he asked.