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We pull off the recently finished section of highway at the Argveta exit in Imereti, follow Google Maps to a hand-painted sign directing us along a bumpy lane to an open iron gate with painted flowers, and park our car as if we live here. The front yard is lush with fruit trees, children’s toys are neatly scattered about, and a hammock under the shade of a large walnut invites us to lounge next to an enormous stone table. Before we sit here and never get up, Giorgi Zhorzhorladze steps out of his neat two-story house trimmed in red bricks, greets us with a warm “Gamarjoba!” (“Hello there!”) and welcomes us inside, to another realm.

The family lives upstairs and serves people in their enormous living room, which feels as cavernous as an airplane hangar and has exposed ceiling beams. The walls are raw cinder blocks decorated in a collection of Modigliani prints, hats, guitars, photographs; colors pop throughout the large open space. There are vases of dried flowers, antique furniture, old rugs and hand-painted tables. Soothing melodies by the 1980s Georgian group Women’s Vocal Trio Harmony are playing on the computer. We walk to the menu propped on a piano, read the daily specials and lick our lips.

The name of this rural domestic utopia is Lia Deida – Aunt Lia – a home-cooking, farm-to-table enterprise that opened in June after Giorgi lost his job as a tourism administrator and guide in Tbilisi due to Covid-19. “[Lia] is our mother only, but she is everyone’s aunt,” Giorgi explains. A retired accountant, Lia is responsible for everything here, starting with the unusual 30-year-old architecture, interior design, handmade curtains and tablecloths, and most importantly, the food. “I used to bring people here as a guide and now that I’m a free agent, I just turned it into a business,” the thirty-something explains.

Giorgi’s father, Shota, a retired food technician, works in the background applying his scientific experience to the new family business. “People are defined by the nature they live in. Here, we have lowlands and highlands, a good synthesis. We have good water, which grows good grass, which makes food taste good,” he expounds before telling us how free-range animals can best provide the necessary amino acids for people.

Imereti is famed for its cuisine, sharing a gastronomic rivalry with its regional neighbor Samegrelo. (One Imeretian friend told us that proof kupati sausage originated in Imereti, not Samegrelo, lies in the Imeretian surname, Kupatadze.) While we take no sides in the debate, the sizzling lobio (beans) that comes out of Lia’s kitchen are among the most orgasmic we have ever had anywhere, releasing layers of zingy explosions over the tongue with a subtle sour finish. “I use seven fresh herbs from my garden and add a bit of fresh tomato at the end,” Lia reveals.

The family raises around 40 free-range chickens and replenishes the number when it drops to 20. Lia roasts them to perfection before they start laying eggs, when the meat is tender. We alternate between bites dipped in her zesty tkemali sauce and mouthfuls of unadulterated bird, including the feet.

“Before we opened, Lia was famous in the region for her cooking,” Shota beams. “Now she is famous in the whole country.”

A young neighbor, who helps cook and serve, lays an oozing extra-large khachapuri on the table that we will mostly wrap up and take home. Small loaves of bread are served hot from the tone oven. And the Imeretian cheese is soft and fresh and low on the salt. The salad of tomatoes and cucumbers is straight out of the Garden of Eden.

We wash our simple lunch down with one of Lia’s decorated carafes of Cornelian cherry compote and one of her vibrant otskhanuri sapere wine, a grape varietal native to the western part of the country. Shota, Giorgi’s father, says they also have tsitska, tsolikouri, and krakhuna that he helps take care of, “but Lia is the winemaker. She decides when it is ready. She has the perfect taste.”

lia deida imereti restaurant

Lia is a self-taught cook who soaked up the influences of her grandmother and mother to form her own style. Shortly after opening, a television crew came to do a piece and people began to come. Then a group of Tbilisi chefs came to attend a master class of hers. In the wintertime, the family will host guests in a heated upstairs dining room.

“Before we opened, Lia was famous in the region for her cooking,” Shota beams. “Now she is famous in the whole country.”

Justyna Mielnikiewicz

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