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Last February, we were at a Japanese pop-up dinner at Bina 37, Tbilisi’s wine cellar in the sky, organized as a tribute to Georgian-Japanese friendship and to celebrate the champion Georgian Sumo wrestler, Tochinoshin (Levan Gorgadze), soon to be promoted to the rank of Ozeki, the second highest tier in the sport.

Zura Natroshvili, the owner of Bina 37, had invited a small delegation of Japanese diplomats from the embassy and set up a big screen for a live Skype chat with Tochinoshin in Tokyo while members of the Gorgadze family were at a table in front. It was a touching event, if a bit surreal.

The highlight of the evening, however, was an impressive seven course Japanese meal prepared by a man who shows a true passion for food, Japanese entrepreneur Kai Maruyama.

“Finally, we can eat some real sushi,” we said, rubbing our chopsticks together.

Tbilisi has a fair share of sushi joints, but none that inspire more than a “ho-hum” out of us. Use enough wasabi and you can make canned tuna pass for sushi, or at least maybe kill the bacilli swimming on that slab of raw salmon that has been sitting on the dirty counter for God knows how long.

Japanese food Tbilisi

Motivated by the feedback he got from the Tochinoshin party, Kai and his business partner Giorgi Aleksidze, former President of the Georgian Judo Federation, liberated half a counter from a fast food cafeteria at the Goodwill supermarket, one of Tbilisi’s first hypermarkets, in Didi Dighomi, a suburb on the outskirts of town. They called it Obento Express.

“Obento means lunch box in Japanese. That’s what this is,” Kai explains. He was just wrapping up a photo shoot of new fish dishes for his menu, none of which are raw. “Japanese food is much more than just sushi,” he adds.

For the record, Kai is not a chef, although he helped put himself through university in Tokyo by cooking in a local Italian-French restaurant before moving to Vienna for film school. This was in the late 80s, when the Berlin Wall was beginning to crumble.

He went from being the leader of a guerrilla street theater group performing behind the Iron Curtain to producing Eastern European stories for Japanese TV and making feature films.

“I get my ingredients from Japan,” Kai explains. “That’s why no one can make it the same.”

“There was no Japanese food, especially in Eastern Europe. One time the crew was craving food from home,” Kai recollects. That’s when he stepped in and started catering on the side. “I had a van packed with Japanese ingredients like spices, rice vinegar and things.”

In 2011, while back in Tokyo, he met members of the Georgian National Judo Team, who were training for the London Olympics at Tokai University, considered the “Mecca of Judo.” Here he struck up a friendship with Giorgi Aleksidze. Kai arrived in Georgia a couple years later with Japanese investors and was involved in various projects, including an apple plantation in the Kaspi region. Meanwhile, his bond to Georgia has grown alongside Tochinoshin’s sensational rise in the world of sumo.

The current menu at Obento is spartan, but so is the kitchen. Half of it is dominated by the neighboring eatery’s pizza oven and prep table, yet the pair work together so harmoniously, you would think it was a single restaurant. And at 8 lari (a little over US$3) an entrée, you won’t find better palate bang for the buck.

Japanese food Tbilisi

Obento’s fare is wired to satisfy anyone craving the distinctive flavors of Japan and aims to dazzle anyone looking to change up their taste buds. The miso ramen is the real deal, made from a paste of righteously fermented miso and soy, while ginger rounds out layers of savory zen.

Soba noodles are made daily and fried with what Kai calls a tomato-based “brown sauce.” The curry has a welcomed depth you won’t find at any other Japanese restaurant in town.

“I get my ingredients from Japan,” Kai explains. “That’s why no one can make it the same.”

Being located in one of Tbilisi’s largest supermarkets in a far flung suburb might be a bizarre location for such an exotic chophouse, but it has its benefits: Kai gets to check up on fish deliveries and when the salmon looks good he’ll knock out some harasu from the underbelly and serve it raw as a treat for his staff.

“Sushi is not on the menu, but who knows, maybe we’ll try it for a daily special,” he suggests.

“Please do!” we silently urge, looking forward to the day we won’t have to disinfect Tbilisi nigiri under a wad of wasabi.

Postscript: After a five bout winning streak in the July Nagoya Grand Sumo Tournament, Tochinoshin was forced to withdraw from the tourney after suffering a torn ligament in his toe. Culinary Backstreets wishes him a speedy recovery.

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