Editor’s note: We’re celebrating another year of excellent backstreets eating by taking a look back at our favorite restaurants and dishes of 2017. Starting things off is a dispatch from our Tbilisi bureau chief Paul Rimple.
In 2001, a chic fashion designer opened up a snazzy café in the Vake Park building we were living. The low quadratic furnishings were not made for comfort, but were perfect for posing with your nose in the air and a cigarette between your fingers. It was the only cafe in this part of town and lucky us, it was downstairs.
There wasn’t really quality bottled wine back then, a fact we were unaware of, as we had only recently arrived. Yet there were bottles on display we hadn’t seen at the train station. I ordered a glass and the waitress walked off confused and brought the manager back.
“How can I help you?” he asked in wonderful English and with a jester’s smile.
“A glass of Saperavi, please.”
“I’m sorry, we only sell it by the bottle,” he said, clasping his hands.
It took a moment to realize he was serious. I frowned. There was an uncomfortable frozen minute before he said, “But it’s a great idea!” And walked off to the bar to uncork a bottle.
Oh how things have changed. The café is long gone, for one. It lasted maybe a year. And the last time we saw the manager, he was a deputy in some ministry. But more importantly, there are now scores of cafes and restaurants in that neighborhood and hundreds more throughout the city, and you can bet each and every one of them serves wine by the glass. The trick is finding the right one for you – and I was lucky enough to frequent several suitable candidates over the past year.
On the left bank of Tbilisi’s Mtkvari River is the newly renovated pedestrian section of Aghmashenebeli Street, which is full of run-of-the-mill, tourist-luring cafés and restaurants. But at the top of the strip is Amber Bar, a wine lover’s wine bar with an excellent selection of natural Georgian wines and a menu offering a playful medley of appetizing dishes. High 19th-century ceilings and a no-smoking policy make it a refreshing, airy place to sip and nibble. Tourists wander in from time to time, but this is a local hangout free from the traditional obligation of monumental eating and drinking.
It was at Amber Bar that we discovered The Wine Thieves, a little company that bottles fine family wines from across the country. They claim theirs is the “finest quality Georgian wine ‘stolen’ exclusively for you,” but what the Thieves do is provide a label for excellent winemakers who have no resources to bottle and market their own vintages. It’s like drinking some the best secret stash in the country. We like their Chinuri and Tsolikouri with Amber’s bruschettas: pear, walnut and blue cheese, and the homemade cream cheese, prosciutto and fig jam, in particular. The Saperavi is perfect with the Imeretian kupati sausage and fried sulguni cheese sticks in crushed walnut and smoky adjika paste, especially later in the evening, when the jazz duo kicks in.
About a block away on the other side of Aghmashenebeli is Aripana, an ambitious new place that offers original takes on traditional dishes from each region in the country. The exposed brick walls, Caucasian and Asian rugs, second-hand tablecloths and eclectic decor give it a cozy, homey feel. We love starting with gandzili, a wild garlic pate, and nadugi, sour curd jazzed up with red bell pepper, served with homemade bread sticks. Chef Giorgi Jegadze is clearly trying to impress, and he nails the raspberry soup from the Kartli region, which tastes like a hot bowl of sweet, deep summer. Spinach salad with soft, warm beef tongue, cherry tomatoes and shaved smoked sulguni in a light olive oil vinaigrette is simple, perky and wonderful. We have heard good things about the pkhlovani, a spinach pie from Khevsureti, and intend to return to try that and wash it down with a bottle of Shavnabada Monastery’s 2007 Saperavi, one of the best wines we had all year.
Although Georgia’s fame for being the birthplace of viniculture has now been immortalized in the Guinness book of records, few are aware of the country’s long-standing tradition of beer making in the high mountains. For the average Georgian city dweller, beer is merely a hangover remedy and for refreshment on a hot summer day. And until recently, nobody was making craft suds in Tbilisi.
Fortunately for us, The Black Dog Bar not only opened up last year to fill this niche, but it is a pet-friendly, non-smoking neighborhood tavern along our dog-walking route. In the afternoon, we like to stop in for their juicy mess of a burger and their cream ale, IPA, red ale, lager or whatever else is on tap, and play a round or two of foosball. In the evenings it is hard to stay away from their fruit brandies. The owners recently opened a sister bar, Number 8 Bar & Grill on Abashidze 22 in Vake, with a more substantial menu and drink selection.
Like other cultures that take their drinking seriously, Georgians appreciate the therapeutic qualities of tripe soup. Known as khashi, it is customarily a preemptive remedy eaten in the wee hours before you crash. Most of the greasy all-night khashi joints are gone now, but Maspindzelo in the bath district is a clean 24/7 restaurant that offers big bowls of tripe squares wading together with a cow knuckle in a milky broth.
Chef Tekuna Gachechiladze has an outpatient clinic also in the bath district for overindulgers called Culinarium-Khasheria, although you’ll love it even without a punished constitution. We tend to “eeny, meeny, miny, moe” the menu. Many of the soups are Asian-inspired. The house favorite, khinkali, is a beef consommé with shiitake mushrooms, black fungus and spoon-sized Georgian dumplings. The bozbashi is a deep, earthy beef meatball soup and the cold matzoni (yogurt) soup is perfect for blistering summer hangovers. Being a half-Mexican a long way from home, I am rather partial to Tekuna’s menudo-inspired khashi with spicy red adjika pepper paste and Japanese kombu, which she adds to neutralize the intense stock aroma, and fresh ginger to round off the flavors. Homemade naan-like bread is great to dip into her eggplant pkhali, which is whipped up with tahini. Much of the menu is seasonal. In winter, it is hard to say no to the kupati, an offal sausage served on a chestnut polenta and in summer we drool over the veal shanks in wild garlic. Whether or not we need the hair of the dog that bit us, we like to start and finish our culinary escapade with a shot of Armazi chacha. Culinarium-Khasheria is also one of the few places we can indulge in Blui’s Jgia wine, a seductive, rare rosé made by Tekuna’s husband, Irakli Bluishvili.
As excited as we are about the evolution of Georgia’s food and wine scene, we haven’t forgotten what hooked us here in the first place. Megrelebi Manoni is one of the finest examples of traditional Georgian cuisine, specializing in the spicy heartiness of west-Georgian fare. It is best to come with a group of friends, occupy a little private cabin and overindulge: chvishtari (cheesy cornbread), tskhare neknebi (adjika-rubbed veal ribs), kharcho (beef stew with walnuts and tomatoes), elargi (polenta and sulguni cheese), gebzhalia (a lactose party consisting of sulguni, cottage cheese and mint), satsivi (chicken in walnut sauce)… There must also be bowls of boiled red beans and cilantro and a big thick pie or two of Megrelian khachapuri on the table
Although they offer wine by the glass, Megrelebi Manoni is not for sippers. You order wine a pitcher at a time. Like the other little cabins, ours started out civilized on our last visit and then transformed into an animated feast full of friendly banter, heartfelt toasts and the resonance of clinking wine glasses.