We spent the summer in Georgia’s Shida Kartli region, a vast expanse of fertile terrain in the heart of the country that we have fallen crazy in love with. One day, over a glass of local Chinuri wine, we wondered aloud, “Every other region in the country has signature dishes, but what about Kartli? What are its signature dishes?”
We asked our neighbors and got a lot of shoulder shrugs. Shota, a 65-year-old contractor, recalled his grandmother’s soups. “They had fruit,” he said. Seventy-year-old Maro said she too ate fruit soups as a child. Thus began our plan to dig up forgotten Kartli recipes, someday.
But it turns out some of the work has already been done for us. Last month we learned of a new restaurant with a novel concept that owner Mamuka Goglidze calls “ethno-culinary.” The idea is to offer distinctive dishes representative of each region of Georgia on one menu. The 31-year-old former TV news anchor named his restaurant Aripana, which roughly translates as “where good friends meet and share their food.”
Aripana was inspired during a family brainstorm session when his nine-year-old son suggested opening a restaurant where you could taste the whole country under one roof. Mamuka enlisted chef Giorgi Jegadze, who learned his chops Levan Kobiashvili, one from Tbilisi’s leading chefs, to devise original takes on regional recipes.
“This is not a regular restaurant. There’s nothing like it,” Mamuka insists.
Most Georgian restaurants in Tbilisi are a generic combination of eastern and western fare: mtsvadi (roast pork) from Kakheti, shkmeruli (garlic chicken) from Racha, khachapuri from Samegrelo and Imereti. To explore regional cuisines deeper, you must go to an exclusive Rachan, Imertian or Megrelian restaurant. But where to go for Meskhetian food? Does Adjara offer more than acharuli khachapuri? Aripana has the answers.
Old red brick walls, vintage tablecloths and run-of-the-mill paintings on the walls evoke a warm, homey feel. The menu is a map of the country with the dishes noted in their respective regions. There is the garlic lover’s shkmeruli with quail (instead of chicken) from Racha, roast rabbit on a bed of oyster mushrooms from Imereti and to our great surprise, raspberry soup from Kartli. Served warm, the pureed fruit is cut with mint and onion, which gives it an earthy sweetness, and is impossible to eat slowly.
“This is not a regular restaurant. There’s nothing like it.”
The danger of going overboard is always a reality when tampering with traditional recipes, particularly as “fusion cuisine” is becoming trendy in Tbilisi. But Aripana keeps it real with subtle changes to old standbys, like gresta, a mushroom, cheese and tomato casserole from Meskheti in southwestern Georgia. Chef Jegadze simply adds tender beef to the hearty mix – it harmonizes so well that you’d think it has always been made like this.
The nifty looking menu can be tricky to decipher since dishes are organized by region and not type. You’ll probably need to ask the charming waitstaff for a bit of help. But by all means, start with a teasing assortment of chicken pate and gandzili, a pate of wild garlic, both from Abkhazia, and nadugi, a curd from Samegrelo, which is whipped and jazzed up with red bell pepper.
The spinach salad is a bold, bursting bevy of flavor and texture with plum, tomato, warm and tender beef tongue, and a sprinkling of smoked sulguni cheese. Main courses are designed for the individual and not the entire party, even though Georgians typically eat communally, by helping themselves to shared sizzling ceramic platters of chicken, offal, stewed meats and the like.
“The culture of eating is changing,” Mamuka asserts. “Here, we have many things that are new even for Georgians.”
Chef Jegadze has tweaked Samegrelo’s chicken bazhe by substituting almonds for walnuts in the rich sauce. The chicken breast is baked, sliced and set on a bed of hot polenta called ghomi, which floats on a pool of bazhe.
Trout is stuffed with a mix of crushed nuts and fresh tarragon, and seasoned with lemon, ground pepper and salt. A thick pair of these fish rolls are served on a bed of green beans. The sauce is a tarragon-based sour plum tkemali. The shades of anise in the tarragon and the tartness of the plums is a first-rate accompaniment to the nutty fish.
The wine list is measured but on target. Our favorite for the hearty meat dishes is Shavnabada Monastery’s 2007 Saperavi. Happiness is aged organic kvevri Saperavi, but it is hard to find as most natural winemakers don’t bottle enough to store. Vibrant when young, the “black” wine mellows righteously with age and is nothing short of heavenly (pun intended). This Shavnabada has hints of beeswax, frankincense and dark cherry.
Aripana is located on the pedestrian stretch of Aghmashenebeli, a strip of mostly tourist trap cafés and eateries. Mamuka admits to having been tempted to open a fast-food joint, but when the opportunity arose to exploit the second floor of his space, he put the kitchen up there and embraced the idea of turning people on to something new that is still entirely Georgian.
“Everyone knows traditional Georgian food,” Mamuka asserts. “I want to do something different.”