Ivane Tarkhnishvili Street is a 300-meter stretch of blacktop in the Vera neighborhood that links the lower part of the quarter to the upper part. We used to drop off clothes for dry cleaning here and meet for coffee at Kafe Literaturuli, two establishments lost to the dustbin of time.
For several years, we had no reason to venture to this part of the hood, until a friend tipped us off to a new place that opened last September. It’s called Pepperboy, and it is the one restaurant in Georgia that will take you on a wildly delectable ride through pan-Asian cuisines.
For years we’ve relied on a few Chinese joints to satisfy our cravings for Asian flavors, and while they are pretty decent, we have wearied of the tangy one-dimensional sauces, frozen vegetables, and desiccating effects of MSG. Unless you bite into a Thai dragon pepper, you shouldn’t cry out for a liter of water after dinner.
It has been the same with the Thai stir-fry noodle bars that have recently popped up in the city. While the presence of Thai cooks is encouraging, they are no guarantee the grub will be tasty – sound mechanics are no substitute for devotion in the kitchen.
Passion is what drives Pepperboy’s chef-owner, Ana Dondua. The 36-year-old Georgian taught herself how to cook ten years ago while working as a marketing specialist for various multi-national companies. The work sent her abroad, mostly to East Asia, where she fell in love with the food.
“I traveled a lot in Asia, read lots of books and used my family as test bunnies. There was lots of testing,” Ana admits. Yet, watching her work in the open kitchen, it’s hard to imagine she has ever worn anything other than chef’s whites.
Walk into Pepperboy and you leave Tbilisi behind. Ana may not have consulted a feng shui expert, but the balance in this loft space is all there, from the fragrances of soy and fish sauce to the mural by the local painter Nino Kvatchidze, who has a strong affinity for Japanese art.
[The menu] looks like a playlist of favorite dishes from China, Korea, Vietnam, Japan and Thailand.
Ana calls her menu a “living organism,” which changes with the seasons, but it looks like a playlist of favorite dishes from China, Korea, Vietnam, Japan and Thailand. But if not for the local distributors stocked with all the right ingredients (ramen from Japan, green curry from Thailand, etc.), she never would have considered opening the restaurant.
“I don’t compromise at home. Why should I compromise here and embarrass myself? It’s all or nothing,” she affirms with an impressive nonchalance.
Ana, who left a good paying job to pursue her dream, takes that integrity to the market every day when she goes to buy produce from her most trustworthy sources. Nothing she serves was frozen, except for the shrimp. Even her tofu and kimchi are made on site, which wows her Korean guests who would never expect that a “foreigner” could conjure such authenticity so far from home.
“Koreans are as connected to their kimchi as Georgians are to their wine. They will not settle for anything less. Their appreciation of my kimchi gives me energy,” she says. Vietnamese guests are no less surprised by her pho.
Ana’s understanding of this dish comes from her experiences of eating it on a Saigon street from a grandmother who has done nothing but make pho on the sidewalk her entire life. Ana’s pho is a symmetrical combination of freshness: from the stock to the veggies and the protein. Although a bottle of Sriracha is at hand, we fight the urge to defile the gorgeous broth with added octane.
Likewise with the chicken bao. Served like two little tacos in a bamboo steamer, the first instinct is to reach for the hot sauce, but we enjoy the texture contrasts of the crispy chicken, shredded carrot and rice-doughy wrap rolling over our tongues and down our gullets on their own before adding anything else.
Along with the simple love of cooking, Ana is driven by the desire to bring the tastes of Asia to Georgia, unlike anyone else in the country. But it is her no-prisoners kitchen ethic that keeps people coming back. The food is as honest as it gets.
“There is no middle ground here, we’re doing this the hard way,” Ana asserts.