There was a dowdy little joint in Batumi, Georgia’s Black Sea port town, where two middle-aged women churned out the most exquisite Adjarian-style khachapuri pies in an old pizza oven. It was a must-stop for every trip to the coast, as there were few places in Tbilisi that could scorch such an authentic acharuli.
As the years passed, the seedy potholed streets that hosted a pool hall, brothels and our favorite khachapuri joint transformed into a gentrified neighborhood of gift shops and boutiques catering to the ever-growing number of tourists flocking to Batumi. Meanwhile, the boat-shaped acharuli has become one of the most emblematic dishes of Georgian cuisine and is not only found all over Tbilisi, but is also being served in New York and Washington, DC.
Named after the subtropical region of Adjara, the pie is a baked barge of supple dough packing a cargo of gooey cheese topped with a mostly raw egg and a slowly melting Snickers-sized gob of butter. It is the mother of all comfort foods, eaten with the hands by ripping off pieces of crust and dipping them into the arterially perilous fondue. In the hands of a master cook, acharuli is a gastronomic pleasure yacht cruising the gentle waters of tastier latitudes.
Because life is short, and acharuli might just kill you, you should settle for nothing less than the best. In Tbilisi, that means a trip to Retro, Gia Agirba’s khachapuri house in Sarburtelo. A native of Batumi, Agirba, who has been making khachapuri since he was seven years old, was destined for acharuli greatness.
Agirba is an ethnic Abkhazian whose family members were victims of the Muhajir, the Tsar’s 19th-century ethnic cleansing of Circassians from the North Caucasus. He traces the origins of acharuli to the seafaring Laz, Abkhaz and Megrelian people of the Black Sea and says they brought the khachapuri recipe with them to Turkey, where it became known as peynirli pide and is also boat shaped. In 1865, his family relocated to Batumi.
“My aunt worked in a café between my home and school. I stopped there everyday and ate and made khachapuri,” he says at our table. Behind him is the kitchen separated by a bay window, where we watch a baker pounding an acharuli into shape with his fist.
By the time he was 15, Agirba was a chef in a Soviet kitchen and went on to cook in the army until 1987, when he worked in a cafe in Khelvachauri, just south of Batumi. It was about this time he developed what he calls his “flagship dish” – the acharuli tsomgamoclili, which means without dough and is a kind of khachapuri-lite.
“I was fat and didn’t like it, but I couldn’t stop eating khachapuri. So, one day I took one out of the oven and scraped out cheese and bread (from the edges) with my finger.” Whether this diet version of khachapuri alone is responsible, Agirba now is a muscular and fit man nearing 50 years.
When Communism fell, Adjara became a kind of fiefdom for Aslan Abashidze, a crime lord who fancied himself a prince. By this time Agirba was running a cafe frequented by Abashidze’s bodyguards, who would stop by before opening hours for khachapuri.
“They noticed how I was making khachapuri for myself and asked me if they could try it like that too. They loved it. Aslan Abashidze’s son came by, and he loved it too. They cleaned me out.”
Word soon spread of this acharuli with a crispier crust, and in 2004, shortly after the Georgian government regained full control of Adjara and sent Abashidze into exile in Russia, President Saakashvili brought Agirba to Tbilisi where he opened Machakhela, a restaurant that soon expanded to 14 locations in Tbilisi.
“I made good business,” Agirba says and talks about an 8-meter-long acharuli he made for the President once.
After a falling out with Saakashvili, however, he returned to Batumi in 2009 and opened Retro in partnership with an old friend. Again, the greatness of his cheese boat could not be muted and Retros began popping up across the country. After years of petitioning, Agirba finally received a patent in 2016 for his tsomgamoclili. Now he is setting his sights on an international patent as he expands his acharuli empire to Russia, Europe and the United States.
An excellent acharuli must have a light, yet firm crust and should be made with a mixture of sulguni and Imeretian cheese, although Agirba says he substitutes his own cheese for Imeretian, but shies from sharing details as to what exactly that is, other than that it is “young and fresh.” Unlike everyone else, Agirba removes the whites from the egg before finishing the pie off, claiming the whites contain too much bacteria. His “Titanic,” a forearm-length monstrosity that can feed a family of Mormons, is topped with five yolks.
Ever a stickler to detail and integrity, Agirba demands that each restaurant bearing his name use his specially designed brick oven and Georgian cheese. This stipulation postponed negotiations for a Los Angeles restaurant for a year. Authenticity and consistency are everything, even when his Batumi restaurant is cranking out 5,000 boats a day in the high season. We joke that for years we wouldn’t eat acharulis in Tbilisi because they weren’t authentic, but Agirba is quick to remind us, “in Batumi, they also make bad khachapuri.”