For 2,000 years, people have flocked to the Abanotubani baths, whose hot sulfuric waters have long been fabled to possess magical healing qualities. The Persian king Agha Mohammad Khan soaked there in 1795, hoping to reverse the effects of the castration he suffered as a child. He dried off, found his conditioned unchanged and razed Tbilisi to the ground.
While people continue to espouse the curative properties of the sulfur baths, we can only vouch for their powers to relieve stress, loosen up sore muscles and help poach the hangover out of you. It is the latter attribute that inspired the local chef Tekuna Gachechiladze to open a restaurant last year that might not cure erectile disorders, but is definitely designed to nurture alcohol-stricken bodies back to life.
Named after the tripe soup hangover remedy, Culinarium-Khasheria was initially run like the old gastronomic institution known as the “khashi bar,” a 24-hour way station for boozers that has all but disappeared from the local landscape.
“The neighbors were complaining – we would have more people at 5 a.m. than 5 p.m., so we changed the hours,” Gachechiladze explained.
The concept of Georgian hangover dishes seems like an odd choice for a chef who had forged her career on taking Georgian recipes and turning them inside out and upside down. Such efforts to modernize Georgian cuisine earned her the moniker “queen of Georgian fusion,” a term she loathes because she sees Georgian fare by nature as a multi-cultural evolution of flavors, ingredients and methods.
Gachechiladze’s unorthodox understanding of tradition irks many locals who view their national cuisine in a stark black and white palate. Khasheria, however, is her ode to traditional Georgian cooking and has been attracting a Georgian clientele from the very beginning. In lieu of her signature blasphemy, mussels chakapuli, guests will find simple dishes like tomato and cucumber salad, Megrelian kharcho and shkmeruli (garlic chicken). But it is the twists on traditional recipes that we find most exciting.
Khasheria’s namesake dish was inspired by a trip Gachechiladze made to a San Diego taqueria for menudo, the Mexican take on tripe soup. She uses ajika, a red pepper-garlic paste, to spice the soup up and Japanese kombu to neutralize the intense stock’s aroma. Fresh ginger rounds out the most singular hangover helper we’ve ever tasted.
Bozbashi is a deep, earthy soup with lamb, but Gachechiladze uses beef meatballs instead. Khinkali soup, the house favorite, is an Asian inspired beef broth with shiitake mushrooms, black fungus and spoon-sized Georgian dumplings.
We never pass on Khasheria’s pkhali, which is typically a rough salad paste of veggies like spinach, beet leaves or cabbage with walnuts, garlic and vinegar. Gachechiladze uses tahini to turn it into an exotic hummus-like delicacy. We like the eggplant pkhali, although you might want to try an assortment and discover your own favorite.
“Never before have I seen Georgian people waiting in line outside a restaurant.”
While the soups, salads and shkmeruli are year-around menu items, much of the focus is on seasonal dishes. Kupati, an offal sausage served on a chestnut polenta, and kuchmachi, minced chicken hearts, livers and gizzards with hazelnuts, walnuts, almonds and pomegranate seeds, are on the winter menu, while the Easter specialty, lamb chakapuli, has a short springtime run.
One springtime specialty that will make the crossover into summer is the savory, slow-cooked veal shanks in wild garlic. When available, barabulka (red mullet) is another summertime favorite, served in a green bazhe sauce of hazelnut and cilantro. For those special blistering summer hangovers, there is cold matzoni (yogurt) soup.
Gachechiladze depends on small farmers throughout the country to supply her with the freshest and most natural produce for her restaurant. This year will be the second time Khasheria will offer artichokes on the menu, thanks in large part to the Catholic priest Father Giuseppe Pasotto, an Italian who serves in one of Tbilisi’s two Catholic churches. Since he started farming Italian produce in Georgia, one of the most celestial vegetables in the world can now be found here in Tbilisi.
The small restaurant seats 35, about half on two long communal tables. Turnover is rather high for Tbilisi, where people will occupy a table for hours. Some days might see 200 people walking through the door, not all of whom are nursing hangovers, although most people do order soup.
“Never before have I seen Georgian people waiting in line outside a restaurant,” Gachechiladze observed. But Khasheria is the one restaurant in Tbilisi worth waiting for.