In Sukhumi, the capital of Abkhazia, there is an old pier with a sorrowful rusting shell of a café poking out over the Black Sea. What had been a dining room is a vacant space that mostly seems to serve as a public urinal, while upstairs a kiosk-sized café serves Turkish-style coffee, beer and snacks with plastic tables and chairs for locals who bitterly recall when the café was one of the most happening spots in Sukhumi.
Georgians and Abkhaz dined, drank and danced together at the café, called Amra, until war erupted in 1992, and these friends and neighbors began killing each other. Within a year, much of what had been the capital of the Soviet Union’s “Red Riviera” was destroyed and as the Abkhaz advanced, some 250,000 Georgians were forced to flee their homes, not realizing they would never be able to return.
Among those tens of thousands of Georgians was 10-year-old Guram Kiknadze, born in Sukhumi, raised in the idyllic seaside resort of Gagra and displaced to Tbilisi. Guram loved being in the kitchen as a child and grew into the restaurant business, working as a dishwasher, waiter, bartender, cook, manager, caterer and chef for several upscale Tbilisi restaurants. In 2013, at the ripe age of 30, he opened his own Amra in Tbilisi’s Saburtalo district as an ode to his homeland.
Abkhazian cuisine is much like Megrelian, but then Abkhaz and Megrelians have shared the northwestern corner of Georgia from time immemorial. Both peoples traditionally eat with their hands, using sticky corn polenta (called ghomi in Georgian and abista in Abkhaz) as a scoop, and spicy red pepper figures heavily in their recipes.
The patska is a traditional kitchen of wicker walls with an open fire in the middle. Like Megrelians, the Abkhaz hang sulguni cheese above the fireplace in order to smoke it, but they also suspend cuts of pork and red peppers, too. The pork will be cut into bite-sized chunks and fried, roasted or may be sliced right off the hook. The peppers are turned into adjika, a high-octane paste packed with garlic and spices. Its sublime intensity releases in broad, eye-popping waves over your tongue. Adjika means “salt” in Abkhazia, and like salt it is added to everything there.
His magic bullet was finding an Abkhazian to provide him with superb smoked meat and peppers for adjika.
There is no patska at Amra, but Guram has tried to replicate the smoking off-site. “But it wasn’t right,” he confesses. “It is really hard to do. The Abkhaz use a different wood for smoking, a type of pine.” His magic bullet was finding an Abkhazian to provide him with superb smoked meat and peppers for adjika, which reveals that it’s not all hostility and bad blood between Abkhaz and Georgians.
Yet, the homesickness is evident in Amra’s main dining room, with antique knickknacks, framed photos of Abkhazian sites on the wall and a large-screen TV monitor playing looped videos of pre-war, Soviet Abkhazia. “No one has made an Abkhazian restaurant in Tbilisi, ever,” Guram affirms.
Amra ventures beyond Abkhazia, though, with an expansive menu based on traditional family recipes from across the country. Guram explored Samegrelo to learn how people make dishes like gebzhalia, an exhilarating lactose-rich rush of sulguni cheese swimming in a minty bath of sour cream and khacho, or cottage cheese. He spent time in Svaneti to master the mother of meat pies, kubdari, and unearth the secrets of Svanetian salt. He inherited his grandmother’s recipe for pork leg stuffed with onions and a glut of herbs and spices, which he serves during the holiday season. You can also find boiled khachapuri, served with sour cream and butter on the side, but ask for a dish of adjika to eat it Abkhaz style.
Some Abkhazian dishes, like Abkhazura, small meat patties packed with herbs, spices and pomegranate seeds stuffed in caul fat, are offered in nearly every restaurant in Tbilisi, including Amra, but good luck finding acurdca, Abkhazian bean soup, and akutagchaba, hard-boiled eggs smothered in crushed walnuts and adjika. As delicious as the Abkhaz courses are, we could not help but gravitate to a hard-to-find Megrelian helping of puchkolia, ghomi/abista topped with fresh, crumbled, unsalted cow’s milk cheese and mint, to accompany some of Tbilisi’s most vivacious kuchmachi, chopped pork heart and liver roasted in a ketsi with pomegranate.
Over a cup of Abkhaz coffee, a Turkish-style brew brought to a boil on a bed of piping hot sand, Guram is proud to mention how nothing is frozen, cheese comes unadulterated from nearby villages and Black Sea fish is delivered three times a week from Batumi. Warm and genuine, he delivers with the confidence of a guy who has spent more than half of his 36 years in the business.
“If you open a restaurant without knowing the kitchen, what kind of restaurant will it be?” he asks rhetorically. “I am lucky. I have a good kitchen team, we cook as one, like a family. And when you come here, you are treated like family.”