The last time I was in a restaurant was March 7. I had bumped into three friends at Sulico Wine Bar and after draining our last bottle of wine we walked down to Republic 24, chef Tekuna Gachechiladze’s latest tour de force. Recalling the lustrous pork belly and the devilish succulence of her khinkali is making me salivate like a thirsty vampire, particularly after burping the blasphemous supermarket khinkali we pulled out of the freezer and boiled for lunch just now.
We evacuated Tbilisi shortly after that, stoked up the wood burner in Garikula and unpacked our bags. With a pantry packed with provisions, our first weeks in the village went by as pleasantly as could be during a global pandemic. We had time to roll flour tortillas while a locally raised pork shoulder slowly simmered in a bath of fresh-squeezed oranges and lemons, seasoned with a golden onion, garlic and dried poblano peppers.
In a couple weeks, however, our recipes became increasingly less exotic as the burden of Covid-19 dug in, taxing our nerves with the stinging disquiet of an uncertain future. From chili con carne and mac and cheese to chicken soup and tuna melts, cooking isn’t as much of an escape or diversion as it is a responsibility. We are not on holiday in the village; we are in survival mode.
Georgian food isn’t in our repertoire unless you count kikliko, the Georgian version of French toast. In the last 12 weeks we’ve had only one guest, and for this joyous occasion we started a fire and roasted chunks of pork – mtsvadi – on the coals. I don’t miss Georgian food as much as I do the revelry I associate it with. We sit at the table because there is no better place to be with the people we love. Our closest friendships in this country were made at the dinner table, sharing food from communal platters, keeping our wine glasses topped off and making heartfelt toasts (or not). Shkmeruli doesn’t taste the same without hearing a chorus of carnal moans, “Oh my god this is SO good!”
We were counting the days until June 8, the day the government was going to permit a maximum of ten people to gather at our favorite restaurants, provided we can sit outside (that date was pushed up to June 1, with indoor dining now to be allowed on June 8). Some of us are dreaming of what and where we will eat, but most are hungry for sharing the experience with people we want to be with most.
Some of us are dreaming of what and where we will eat, but most are hungry for sharing the experience with people we want to be with most.
Tamar Babuadze, a magazine editor who moonlights as a CB Tbilisi walk leader, can’t wait to bust out of the flat she has been cooped up in and to start feeling normal at a restaurant with friends. “What I miss wildly is the socializing aspect of eating out,” she says. “My best food memories are the ones I have shared with people – eating tomato salad at Salobie Bia, the mushrooms in tarragon, their lobiani and homemade bread, with a nice glass of red wine. And I miss all the happy gatherings at Ezo in the summer nights with fried potatoes, jonjoli salad and a glass of mint lemonade.”
Levan Kitia is a local film director whose work has ground to a halt because of the pandemic. He’s also a natural epicure, so I have always esteemed his recommendations, be it film, food or wine. While he looks forward to going out to ravage Megrelian elarji, fresh gebjalia, and spicy kharcho, he also plans to make up for all the wine he missed as “corona” forced the May wine festivals to cancel this year. “My main dream is to visit my winemaker friends and try all the new wines I didn’t taste because of the closure of the New Wine Festival,” he states.
Although I first met Tbilisi journalist Helena Bedwell in the field, we got to know each other around dinner tables, often occupied by the local “hack pack.” Helena has since gone on to author two cookbooks: Georgian Flavours from Helena and Eat Georgian Feel Good: Vegan and Vegetarian Recipes from Helena. She admits to not being “desperate to go out” as she turned the pandemic into an opportunity to improve her family’s eating habits, and to sharpen her cooking skills. However, as soon as she gets the opportunity, she aims to make it out to Salobie, a legendary restaurant near the ancient capital of Mtskheta. “It was my father’s and my favorite place to hang out,” she explains. “To be honest, after visiting many fancy restaurants around the world and tasting high-quality places in Tbilisi, I still prefer the food there.”
In August 2008, we covered the war with Russia. As soon as we were able to come up for air, we went to our favorite joint in the city, the late, great Kachreti Champion, which was known for its gutsy Kakhetian eats: liver roasted on a spit, khachapuri on a spit, bold beef stew – ostri – cooked to perfection, chacha brewed on-site. That is where we met Andrew North, who later married his BBC colleague that brought him there. One place he is itching to return to is Andro Barnovi’s Wine Artisans cellar in Tsedisi. Of food he says, “I miss a good honest kharcho – deep brown and spicy – a side of kartuli salad with bog-soggy in-season tomatoes, plenty of chilies and some of that wild basil, hot shoti (bread) and cold ‘kvevris rkatsiteli’ to wash it all down.”
For our first bite, we thought we might check out Armazis Tskaro, a lovely outdoor restaurant we stumbled into last year (near Armazis Kheoba), with tables under a lush canopy of cottonwoods and beeches, and a stream running through its center. Going there is like being on holiday for an afternoon. Then, our friend Rayhan called us. “Shavi Lomi! That kabob! I would love some of that khachapurito, too,” she mooned. “And if we all go, we can order the gobi.”
The gobi. A wooden bowl loaded with an imperial assortment of fresh cheeses, corn breads, jonjoli, salads of beet, carrot, and eggplant. The word gobi is also the root of the word for friend – megobari, a person you share your food with. We are booking a table for ten friends at Shavi Lomi.
Editor’s note: As our cities begin reopening and adapting to the new normal in the wake of the coronavirus crisis, we are asking CB team members as well as chefs, journalists and food personalities to share the meal they are most looking forward to eating in our new “First Bites” series.