It was in 2007, when, on a hunger-induced whim, we called a friend and asked him to meet us for lunch at a new place that had been beckoning from a Rustaveli Boulevard side street for some weeks. Tbilisi’s main drag was bereft of quality, low-priced eats, and the down-home warmth wafting down the street offered the promise of good fortune. This was before the homey little joint was known, a time when our party of two could occupy the eight-top under the window instead of the surrounding cozy, semi-enclosed booths.
The menu has a moderate selection of standard Georgian fare: kabobi (Persian-influenced skewered ground meat), mtsvadi (skewered chunks of pork, chicken, beef or lamb) and ostri, a spicy beef stew, all of which are delicious. The restaurant also has several specialty items baked in ketsi (ceramic casseroles): roasted veal, quail or chicken in tomatoes; fried eggplant in tomato and cheese; and roasted ojakhuri (pork, onion and potatoes) in a pomegranate sauce.
But the real attraction here is Georgia’s signature mouthwatering delight, khinkali, fat dumplings stuffed with a robust mixture of meats, spices and herbs. Pasanauri is named after a mountain village famed for its khinkali, so it’s no wonder that the restaurant really excels at making them, finding the perfect balance of light dough, perfectly seasoned juice and well-spiced meat that melts in your mouth.
Khinkali are a staple of Georgia’s Khevsureti and Tusheti mountain regions and are thought to have come from Central Asia’s steamed dumplings, known as manti. Although the recipe is relatively simple, the formulas are as unique as fingerprints, and because they are ordered by the shovel-load, they are very labor-intensive. Dough consistency varies, as do the stuffing and stock. Mushrooms, cheese and potato purée are meat substitutes, particularly during religious fasting periods. They’re not commonly found in restaurants, but Pasanauri has them on the menu. The stuffing is placed inside a round piece of thin dough, which is then folded several times into a little bag, pinched at the top to form a nipple so that you can hold it while eating, which is an art in itself.
First, you sprinkle some pepper on the dumpling, and when it’s cool enough to pick up, you bite a hole in the side to slurp down the juice, and then you gobble it all down, leaving only the dough nubs so that you can keep track of how many you have devoured. Eating these with a knife and fork is not just a cultural faux pas, but also an awkward mess. Moreover, the method lends itself to experiencing all the layers of the dumpling, each one an individual meal. Because they come from beer-brewing mountain regions, khinkali are not ordinarily paired with wine.
Every Georgian has his or her favorite sakhinkle (khinkali house). A critical palate will discern doughs that are too thick and rubbery or too thin and delicate, the meat too gristly or the juice too greasy. Seeing gobs of coagulated fat and butter on the plate as leaky khinkali cool is an unappetizing experience. And because eating khinkali is typically a boisterous male ritual that includes the mass consumption of beer and vodka, little effort goes into embellishing a standard sakhinkle outside the cold tones of fluorescent lights, off-white tiles and nondescript prints hanging crookedly on the walls.
Pasanauri is not a sakhinkle. In fact, a lot of thought went into its rather surreal interior design. The motif is “mountain cabin,” with 11 sturdy wooden tables and thick lattice dividers, giving each table a bit of privacy, which Georgians like to have. Robert Capa’s 1947 Tbilisi photos hanging on the green walls mean somebody has good taste, but the aesthetics get bizarre on the ceiling, where there is a bearskin rug and an installation of a Georgian mountain supra (feast) hanging upside down.
No matter – we’re here for the food. Lunch ended with us beaming with greasy smirks of gratification and 20 khinkali nipples on our plates.