The name Aristaeus Ethno Wine Bar suggests many things, some puzzling but the most obvious being that wine is served. One look at the menu, though, and it becomes clear this spot is more restaurant than bar. One food item in particular caught our attention: dambalkhacho.
We first heard of dambalkhacho some years back when a friend offered us hard, moldy cheese bits cut from a ball about the size of a healthy orange. It was rich, slightly peppery with a sharp, tart finish; nothing like any cheese we had ever tried.
“It is from Tianeti,” our host explained, a region north of Tbilisi, up in the Caucasus foothills. “You can’t find it in Tbilisi.”
Back then, it took hours to travel the 80 kilometers over a mostly dirt road to Tianeti. We wanted to learn more about this rare artisan cheese at the source, but the trip kept slipping through a hole in our bucket list. In the meantime, we bumped into dambalkhacho at Sarcho, a khachapuri café and deli, and later at artisan cheese shops that began popping up in the city.
Contrary to a common notion, dambalkhacho is not on the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, but it is on Georgia’s cultural heritage list. The cheese is made entirely by hand from buttermilk curd, kneaded with salt, rolled into balls which are placed on a dzobani, a weaved wooden rack hung over a fire, where they are cured for several days before being stored in clay pots in a cellar for two to three months. The lengthy, complicated process makes the cheese much more expensive than common cheeses and fetches 70 lari ($25) or more a kilo in some Tbilisi shops.
While its high price keeps it out of most household refrigerators, dambalkhacho is finding its way onto the menus of some fine Tbilisi restaurants, either as part of a cheeseboard, a khinkali stuffing or a fondue, which is the traditional way of serving it.
“Actually, I never knew that was how you were supposed to eat it before we started serving it here,” confesses Vako Elisabedashvili, the manager of Aristaeus Ethno Wine Bar in Tbilisi’s Old Town.
In its homeland of Tianeti and the neighboring Pshavi region, people clean the mold off the hard cheese and melt small pieces of it into clarified butter to make a rich lactose stew. Some might add bits of mint or spices to sex it up. Aristaeus mixes in a bit of sulguni to give it a stretchier texture and serves it with buttered garlic bread. Cheese dipping was never so decadent.
Here they serve up hot and oozy dambalkhacho, a delicious, stinky cheese that’s fit for the gods.
Aristaeus Ethno Wine Bar evolved a year ago when Gia Darsalia, owner of Vinotheca and Georgian Kalata, the cheese and “edible souvenir” shop next door, decided to become a restaurateur. Vako and Irakli Qilipa, Vinotheca veterans, run what isn’t really a wine bar but an actual restaurant they contend has the biggest wine list in Tbilisi with the lowest mark-up in the city.
“Our name is kind of confusing,” Vako admits. “But because we had such a big wine selection we were thinking ‘bar.’ We wanted to join wine with food, to pair the two. It just grew.”
The staff is cultivating a menu with dishes not typically found in Tbilisi like Svanetian tashmijabi, a hedonistic blend of sulguni cheese and potato puree, and Megrelian puchkholia, a hearty polenta with mint and sulguni. Try either with their spiced Megrelian kupati, a sausage made of pork chitterlings.
It is also a pleasure to find a wide offering of soups. Besides the traditional Georgian chicken chikhirtma, they also ladle pumpkin, spinach, and vegetable soups. We have yet to try their khinkali soup, the most popular of the bunch, and are eager to dig into their Gurian kharcho, a beef soup taken from Gia Darsalia’s family recipe that includes tkemali, local sour plums.
Shkmeruli comes from the high mountain region of Racha and is the world’s most bodacious garlic chicken. People either make it with a cream sauce (our favorite) or without, which is the traditional recipe. The problem is remembering who prepares it your favorite way. Aristaeus is the first we know to solve the dilemma by offering both versions. While we haven’t tried their traditional method, we can give two greasy thumbs up to the creamed dish and its perfectly tender chicken.
The restaurant is a warm multi-level space with a homey interior of Caucasian rugs, artwork, old film posters, a fireplace and bookshelves filled with bottles of wine. In warmer weather you can sit in the little courtyard or the balcony upstairs. On weekends the restaurant features The Chanter’s Group, a quartet of 50-somethings in street clothes (as opposed to the traditional chokha costume) who occupy a table in a corner with a bottle of wine and sing polyphonic folk songs a capella. It is all very laid-back.
Like Vako says, the name is a bit confusing – there is nothing Greek about the place. But Aristaeus was, after all, the Greek god of cheesemaking, and here they serve up hot and oozy dambalkhacho, a delicious, stinky cheese that’s fit for the gods. Aristaeus might not be the only place in Tbilisi that serves such a cheese, but you won’t want to have it anywhere else.