Happiness comes in all forms, but according to Aristotle’s scale there are four distinct levels to this particular emotion – say, for example, waking up to a glorious sunny day (laetus), getting a special discount from your local green grocer (felix) or watching your dog do its business in a sinister neighbor’s yard (beatitudo).
Looking out the window, the snow-capped Caucasus along the horizon on this bright day, our eyes scan the city and settle over our own neighborhood of Vera, below. We sigh a sensual “yes” and nod smugly with our arms crossed because now there is a place in the hood where we can experience each of Aristotle’s levels of happiness in one splendid sitting.
We have a wine bar in Vera. Its name is Sulico.
Wine bars are a relatively new trend in Georgia and about the greatest thing to happen since the invention of the kvevri. And while it is nice to walk into a well-stocked place with a homey, original setting, a good wine bar must know what it is pouring. If it also dishes up enticing eats, consider yourself in paradise on earth.
Suliko (with a K) is a Georgian name which means soul. Nia Odzelashvili opened her Sulico last August, after spending some years in New York running a Georgian fashion boutique. She comes from a restaurant family, so the service industry is nothing new for her.
“When I saw this spot, I knew I wanted to open a wine bar here,” she tells us.
The young entrepreneur couldn’t ask for a better place – nestled below Zandukeli Street on the ground floor of a 19th-century brick building, the plant-filled courtyard seats about two dozen and inside there is room for about 20 more.
Although she studied wine before opening the bar, Nia enlisted local wine zealot Sandro Macedoneli to manage the wine-tending and to teach the staff. “I’m not a sommelier, but I know all these wines intimately,” he confesses, pouring us a crazy cognac-colored Khikhvi from the Utskinari wine cellar. “I think you will like it.”
Formerly the unofficial sommelier at Amber Bar, Sandro is as “somm” as they come, certificate or not. Setting the bottle down he explains how much studying he does. “Intellect is the key to opening this world,” he adds while showing us a Georgian history book about 19th-century viticulture that he brought to work.
Sulico stocks some 130 different bottles, most of which are natural kvevri wines from family vintners. While nosing and sipping, Sandro explains that he doesn’t just pair wine with food, but with people too.
“It is a completely different way of understanding. You must catch the individuality of the wine and of the guest. It’s all about passion,” he affirms.
“I’m not a sommelier, but I know all these wines intimately,” he confesses.
Passion also drives the kitchen here. Baia Tsaava, a self-taught cook, developed the largely organic menu, which is executed by chef Natia Armegonashvili, a graduate of Tbilisi’s Free University cooking school.
“This is a wine bar, I didn’t want to overwhelm it with a big menu,” say Baia. It may be small, but the menu packs an enormously delicious punch, starting with a gratis basket of bread and ramekin of raw sunflower seed oil with red adjika.
Inspired by warm olives she had once in Spain, Baia raises the stakes and sautés them in wine, red pepper and oregano. You will want to start with these and maybe order a glass of Rkatsiteli to go with them, unless Sandro recommends something else.
We’re kind of bummed out that we’ll have to wait until next autumn for the roasted pumpkin salad, but we’re happy to indulge in the cherry tomato salad for now, which is sweet and perky.
Six main courses offer plenty to choose from, starting with the tender, pan-fried trout in a zesty cornelian cherry sauce. The roasted quail and small wheel of fried ghomi (polenta) floating in blackberry sauce is a carnival of flavors. We wipe the plate clean with a triangle of khachapuri, although the pkhlovani, a type of khachapuri made with spinach and cheese, would also suffice nicely. Both cheese breads are light and subdued; a welcome alternative to the standard pies that keep you glued to your seat in just about every other restaurant.
Tolma (dolma), one dish Georgians do not claim credit for, tend to be generically good no matter where you eat them. Grape leaves, rice, pork and beef were fated together like peanut butter to jelly, although some places do a better job than others when it comes to constructing them. Sulico’s pan-fried variety, the only place we know of in Tbilisi that prepares them like this, is one of our favorites.
Before you know it, your eyes are closed and a slow explosion of smoky savoriness, with just a hint of sweetness, releases into your mouth. You moan, unmindful of the looks you arouse, for you have reached the elusive fourth level of Aristotle’s scale of happiness, sublime beatitudo.