Going to dinner at a Georgian restaurant typically means having to fast all day. The table will bulge with must-orders: tomato and cucumber salad, badrijani (eggplant stuffed with garlic and walnuts), an assortment of cheeses and wild greens, and probably pkhali (vegetable pate with walnuts) too. There will be meat, lots of meat – lamb, pork, veal and chicken that will be stewed, baked and roasted – and bread to clean the plate with. Perhaps there will be a grilled trout. And don’t forget the khachapuri, because that is just the way it is.
After several hours at the table, we will make our final toasts, take one last look at the leftovers, maybe snatch a farewell nibble at a loose chive or slice of cucumber and then waddle out of the joint, with greasy grins and logy eyelids. We grunt while we plop into the taxi and groan as we struggle to climb out when we get home. Then we flop on the bed, too listless to even pick up the remote control. This is how it has always been, but things are changing.
Just off Ahkvladeli Street, a one-way lane of Irish style pubs and massage parlors locals still call Perovskaya, there is a little hidden courtyard behind a metal mesh entrance. It’s more like a homey botanical patio with bamboo, lilacs, irises, various colorful florets and a half-dozen wooden tables where some of the freshest, lightest and most delectable Georgian food in Tbilisi is served. There is no sign above the entrance, but the name of the oasis is Alubali – “Cherry” in Georgian.
The menu is minimalistic for a Georgian restaurant, with a strong focus on Megrelian, west Georgian cuisine known for its spiciness, gutsiness and for its grits. They love their corn meal in the west and either cook it straight up or mix in sorta-Mozzarella-like sulguni cheese to make gooey elargi. It’s delicious but can sit in your innards like paper mache paste, gluing everything else you eat to your ribs.
“That’s because no one makes it right,” contends Monica Mosidze, part of the quartet of women who owns Alubali. Their elargi is a fleecy cumulus of cheese and grits that melts in your mouth. The secret is in proportions. She explains how they reverse the accepted cheese to flour ratio for chvishtari, cornbread stuffed with sulguni, which makes it fluffier than the standard, soap bar-sized oozy pucks. And Alubali bakes it in a small ceramic ketsi (casserole dish), instead of pan-frying it.
“This food reminds us of our childhood. It is what our grandmothers used to cook.”
Monica claims that economic realities have affected many of the recipes we now accept as authentic. “People have gotten into the habit of adding flour to kharcho, because it is cheaper than walnuts.” The result is a thicker, heavier stew.
“We are very traditional,” she adds with a warm, serious smile. Yet, Alubali is also very modern.
Although not a chef, Monica Mosidze knows a thing or two about the restaurant business. She became a restaurateur about a dozen years ago when she teamed up with her friends Tamara Babukhadia, Ketevan Salakaia and Mariana Chkonia to open Le Marais, a celebrated French restaurant in Tbilisi. Some six years later they opened Mukhatsakatukha (aka Cafe Mukha), a bakery and grill inspired by New York’s Rose Bakery.
“At Mukha, our hands are more involved in the kitchen as Maria [Ckhonia] loves to bake. We make yeast-free and gluten-free breads from indigenous grains grown by family farmers,” Monica explains. Some of this bread is also served at Alubali.
Sourcing organically grown local produce is part of their formula for creating such unique flavors. It is early May, weeks before Georgian tomatoes will begin to climax, and yet biting into the peeled garnish wedges is giving us goose bumps. The simple cucumber-tomato salad doused in raw sunflower oil and fresh parsley is a gustatory overload after a winter of flavorless imported crops.
To find their chef, the girls scoured villages in Samegrelo and found Inesa Gogia, a family matriarch who shared their vision of serving ‘traditional’ dishes but done in a way that deviates from commonly accepted recipes. “Our favorite dishes are Megrelian and the best cooks are Megrelian,” co-owner Tamara Babukhadia asserts. “This food reminds us of our childhood. It is what our grandmothers used to cook.”
To ensure the sulguni is as fresh as possible, they make it on-site from culture produced by a cheese-making family in Samegrelo. There is nothing like homemade, low-salt sulguni. Served in a shallow bowl, the soft, milky wheel is enough for four people to share.
The kupati is bold village-style sausage made of pork entrails and loaded with paprika, savory and garlic. It is some of the richest and most piquant we’ve had. The kharcho is subtler, yet has enough zest to remind you it is west Georgian. Don’t order these without ghomi, a thick polenta, and/or elargi.
One dish not associated with Samegrelo on the springtime menu is chakapuli, the intrepid lamb, tarragon, sour plum and white wine stew. Ninety-nine percent of the time it is soupy, which is great if you like slurping down that anise-tasting stock. But Alubali prefers serving a reduced medley, which makes the sharp flavors more acute. More care is taken to butchering the meat too, so you’re not spitting out bits of bones at every bite.
At Alubali you get what you pay for; great food isn’t cheap. Yet an average price of 20 lari ($8) for main dishes is not outrageous, considering how much effort goes into providing diners with the freshest ingredients and then preparing them with motherly care. “For us, this is an art,” Monica affirms.
There was enough food on our table to feed a few more bellies, but we are sopping up the chakapuli bowl dry with a piece of tonis puri and munching raw tarragon while waiting for the bill. We have drained Antadze’s superb 2017 Tsolikouri and feel pleasantly satiated, not stuffed.
Monica says that if she had a restaurant in the United States, it would be like this, “a village where you’re sitting outside and everything is tasty.”