Editor’s note: We’re celebrating another year of excellent backstreets eating by taking a look back at our favorite restaurants and dishes of 2018. Starting things off is a dispatch from our Tbilisi bureau chief Paul Rimple.
It was a wet, cold, gray autumn day, and we were shopping for household stuff at the East Point Mall, close to the airport, where we built up an appetite. Our home was being renovated, we had no kitchen, and the mall had a food court. We understood nothing here would taste good – the sushi, the pizza, the Asian noodles with a 30-minute wait – but were not prepared for the hideousness that passed as burgers and a chicken wrap from a world-renowned fast-food enterprise.
“Of all the good places to eat at in this city,” my partner bemoaned, dropping her half-devoured chicken wrap on the plastic tray and pushing it away.
Indeed. It is hard to keep track of all the good restaurants in Tbilisi these days, from the traditional to the new takes on the old, as well as the new ethnic joints popping up. We are always hearing of a must-try place, which we jot down in the gastronomic hit list and tell ourselves, “Maybe tomorrow.”
We managed to cross off a lot of finger-licking “tomorrows” from the list this past year, starting with the inconceivable wine cellar in the sky, Bina 37. On the eighth floor of a new apartment block in the Vedzisi neighborhood Dr. Zura Natroshvili buried 43 kvevri in what had been planned to be a swimming pool on his terrace because he liked the idea of making wine. Bina 37 also dishes up unpretentious traditional fare with a leaning to west Georgia. We love their kuchmachi, a hearty consort of pork innards and earthy spices.
In fact, west Georgia – Samegrelo in particular – figured largely in our gastronomic adventures this year. Megrelian cuisine is typically associated with spicy, rich, over-the-top robust dishes like their khachapuri, which not only has cheese inside but on top as well. And if ghomi (polenta) isn’t heavy enough on its own, Megrelians also pack it with melted sulguni cheese to make gooey elargi.
Alubali, located in a hidden little Vera courtyard, masterfully turns such rib-sticking Megrelian fare into delicate specialties. Its owners maintain that many traditional Georgian dishes have been bastardized by the Soviet and post-Soviet experience, where economic realities compelled people to deviate from the original recipes. Alubali has flipped the accepted cheese to flour ratio for ghomi and chvishtari, cornbread stuffed with sulguni, making it fluffier than the soap bar-sized pucks you usually find. They do not thicken their kharcho with flour like many people do, so you get the deep, unadulterated character of the stewed veal, tomato, walnut and spices. People don’t waddle out of Alubali after dinner. They float.
People don’t waddle out of Alubali after dinner. They float.
We also love the Megrelian fare at Salobie Bia, a homey two-room Sololaki cellar full of original local art and antique odds and ends. Chef-owner Giorgi Iosava travels in the way-back machine to whip up ghomi from millet, which was the staple before corn arrived to Georgia from the “New World” (try it with kharcho!). Iosava makes subtle changes to other old Georgian standbys to create triumphant chikhirtma (chicken soup), shkmeruli (garlic chicken) and ojakhuri (roasted pork and potatoes). You’ll want to try peeled tomato salad with jonjoli (bladdernut) and finish it all off with his lascivious plum sorbet.
This year we also became better acquainted with Shida Kartli, the heart of Georgia. It is one of the most underrated regions of the country, plagued with the legacy of being Stalin’s birthplace and the battleground of Georgia’s war with Russia in 2008. Yet it was once Georgia’s chief wine-producing region, legendary for making wine for the kings. Despite the damage the Soviets wreaked on the country’s wine culture, Kartli is on the road to re-establishing its winemaking birthright.
At Tbilisi’s Zero Compromise Wine Fair in May, we were reunited with Mamuka Kikvadze and Lako Teneishvili, who are among our favorite Georgian vintners. Their Samtavisi Marani is a family operation bottling kvevri wine from their own vineyards of local indigenous Chinubeli (Chinuri) and Mtsvane Goruli. These light ambers are natural, meaning no chemical fertilizers or pesticides and no added yeasts or sulfites in the cellar. The result is a crisp and refreshing wine with hints of spearmint and apple. We can’t wait for them to harvest Shavkapito next year, a Kartli red we cannot get enough of.
One does not find many restaurants along the back roads of Georgia’s regions, which is why we were blown away to discover a Kartli trout farm that not only plucks their fish out of the ponds and cooks them to order, but also plucks the feathers from their chickens and scorches them up, too. Call in advance and they’ll even butcher a lamb for you. Located outside of Kavtiskhevi, Ksovrelebis Sakalmakhe is snuggled in a hidden little dell off the road to the district capital of Kaspi. Bring your own wine or try theirs, and while away a hot summer day under the cool shade of willows.
2018 was a fine year of new discoveries, like Kikliko, Tbilisi’s first breakfast joint, a delightful little Vake nook open at the ungodly Georgian hour of 8 a.m. Still, we did not forget to drop into some of our favorite long-established greasy spoons, like Dukani Racha. You might not get a smile from the waitress, but their savory abkhazura will make you grin.
While looking back at these twelve delicious months, we are reminded of our pickle queen Nunu Gachechiladze, her jaunty laughter and magnificent pickled veggies. Nunu, who passed away in September, put in 12-hour days, seven days a week at the Deserter’s Bazaar with her husband Tamaz. Together, they embodied what we love most about Georgia: warmth, sincerity, good humor and a devotion to making delicious food.