The 19th-century homes in old Tbilisi neighborhoods were built in a style Georgians call “Italian Courtyards,” where through a gate or arch you enter a quad enclosed by stories of balconies shared by each family on the floor. This courtyard was the nucleus of each building, where kids safely romped around, monitored by adults from the windows above, as men contemplated domino moves at a table under a tree and women beat rugs on an iron rack in a corner.
This stereotypical image is disappearing from Tbilisi reality as courtyards become parking lots, kids play on computers and more people socialize outside the home in the city’s growing number of pubs, cafés and restaurants. But there is one Italian courtyard in the heart of Tbilisi’s historic Sololaki district where a group of friends are striving to bring back that old Tbilisi sensibility to life, one healthy bite at a time.
Giorgi (Gio) Lomsadze, Irakli Bakhtadze and their families share a passion for food and how it is grown. Late in September they opened their restaurant Ezo, which means “courtyard” in Georgian, after trying to sell totally organic produce in Tbilisi’s upscale Vake Park neighborhood. The problem with that enterprise, they stated, was not the demand, but the supply.
Most Georgians equate freshness with naturalness and don’t understand that just because the apples at the shop may have been picked yesterday does not mean they are not covered in carcinogenic pesticides. The Bolnisi region of southern Georgia is famed for its tomatoes and cheese, but studies have shown that the runoff from the Soviet-era gold mine in Sakdrisi has polluted irrigation water with high concentrates of metals and poisons for decades. The idea that Georgian food is inherently wholesome is a myth and the people at Ezo believe Georgians deserve better, healthier foodstuffs.
Ezo is more than an organic food restaurant in the making; it is part of a larger scheme to develop sustainable organic farming in Georgia. Lomsadze and Bakhtadze have a 200-square-meter greenhouse that currently grows about a dozen products while they learn how to cultivate more difficult crops. They are also working with a few small organic farmers. Their potatoes and tomatoes, for example, come from small farmers high in the mountainous region of Svaneti who have begun a canning business exclusively for Ezo. This is the kind of micro-agricultural development the people at Ezo hope to incentivize. Lomsadze and Bakhtadze have established a fund that uses 3 percent of their profits to provide in-kind support to help small local farmers develop organic farms, and next year, Ezo’s Sololaki courtyard will host a weekly organic farmers market.
“We are not yet 100 percent organic – that will take a few years,” Bakhtadze said. “What is important is that we make a business without cheating.”
Ezo will not cut corners and will not pretend to be something it isn’t. Its honest food philosophy extends to service, too. The waitstaff are not so much employees as they are friends who share the same vision of serving simple, quality natural dishes to their customers. “In Georgia, waiters are treated like servants,” Lomsadze told us. “We want to change that mentality.”
Lomsadze and Bakhtadze found a head cook with some professional experience before he could “develop bad habits,” which Lomsadze contends are impossible to break. Menu development is a team effort. The current dishes were selected from family recipes and from the renowned Georgian feminist Barbara Jorjadze’s iconic 1874 cookbook, Complete Cuisine. Ezo offers no khinkali (dumplings), kababi (broiled ground-meat logs) or khachapuri (cheese pie), which can be found in virtually every other Georgian restaurant in the country. The concept is to serve original, uncomplicated food, just like Mom does.
Two elderly neighborhood men recently walked into the restaurant, surveyed the creative decor and asked for “schnapps,” believing they had entered a European restaurant. “After lunch they said they hadn’t tasted food like this since they were kids. Now they are regular customers,” recounted Bakhtadze. “The menu is based on what we grew up with. It’s familiar to everyone.”
That may be so, but we have not been to any Tbilisi eatery that offers katami Gurulad – free-range chicken cooked Gurian-style in a rich herb-infused broth that includes cinnamon, a spice rarely seen in the Georgian kitchen. Ezo’s beet salad would be any old beet salad if not for the addition of finely diced dried plums, while the vegetable and beef soups are a refreshing respite to Georgia’s customary chikirtma (chicken and coriander soup) and kharcho (beef and rice soup). The thick, gently marinated grilled pork chops come from a local Swiss meat farmer who is probably the only person who ages meat in the country.
While the recipes alone are reason enough to visit Ezo, it is the naturalness of the food that takes the palate by surprise. Fried potatoes are about as ho-hum as side dishes go, which explains why everybody in the world eats them with ketchup or mayonnaise. But Ezo’s Svaneti potatoes fried with onion are a wonder to devour on their own, and when eaten with “mother’s tkemali” (cherry plum) sauce, they are pure Georgian heaven.
“We have learned that what is most important is to have the proper ingredients,” Bakhtadze said. “No cheating, just simple, quality product.”