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This story starts with a hamburger, a juicy, perfectly grilled patty between a pair of fresh, no-frill homemade buns and the standard trimmings. As burgers become part of the culinary landscape in Tbilisi, we find that many cooks have a tendency to get too slick with a dish that loathes pretension. But this place, Burger House, nailed the balance between originality and straightforwardness. While sopping the drippings up with finger-thick fries we saw a hamburger story in the making and filed the idea away in our bucket list of food tales.

A year or so later, walking down Machebeli Street in Sololaki, we saw a little basement joint named Salobie Bia with a Gault & Millau (a French restaurant guide) sign above the door and decided to investigate further. Several lip-smacking meals later, we learned that the chef and co-owner of this place is the same guy who was responsible for those impressive burgers. It made perfect sense.

tbilisi restaurant salobie bia menu

Giorgi Iosava started on the well-worn Georgian path of law school when he suddenly switched to the high road of culinary arts at a time when cooking was the most uncool profession a person could pursue in this country. His dream was to “do things with Georgian food” and to open a restaurant.

He enrolled at Icarus, a newly established, Western-funded culinary academy in 2005. From there he bounced around the finest kitchens in Tbilisi, learning valuable lessons at The Marriott, Tsiskvili and Strada, and furthering his gastronomic education at Modul in Vienna before settling into a teaching position at Kakha Bendukidze’s Culinary Academy, being one of its first instructors.

In 2015, Giorgi opened Burger House with some of his students. He left the academy last year when he opened up Salobie Bia with his wife, Natalia Buskhrikidze, and sous chef Gari Saakian. Their two-room cellar is adorned with original oils by local painters, like the talented Salome Rigvava, and Giorgi’s eclectic collection of antique bric-a-brac, such as his assortment of corkscrews.

“I needed someplace to put my stuff,” he confesses wryly.

“Keep the ingredients and technology simple and you create something extraordinary,” he affirms.

Salobie translates as “bean house.” (Bia is the name of his native village and also the word for quince in western Georgia. The name is a play on words.) The menu is brief but sharply focused on traditional Georgian fare. Like musicians who value tone over riffs, Giorgi grooves on simplicity rather than lavishness.

“Keep the ingredients and technology simple and you create something extraordinary,” he affirms.

Tomato and cucumber salad, with and without crushed walnuts, is a staple of every restaurant in Georgia. But Salobie Bia swaps the cucumbers with jonjoli (bladdernut), peels the tomatoes and baptizes them with unrefined Kakhetian sunflower seed oil to make a winning salad that is all succulence.

“Each dish has a little twist. This is how we somehow separate ourselves from everyone else. The taste isn’t that much different,” he confides.

His shkmeruli (garlic chicken) does not swim in a bath of milky sauce, but is reduced to a creamy paste, while the meat is boneless and tender. He lightened up traditional chikhirtma soup by holding the flour and onions. Baked beans with smoked Rachan ham are served with the customary side of pickled treats but with the addition of pickled pumpkin, which we have never seen before.

Ever the culinary diplomat, Giorgi clearly understands how nuances make the taste buds hum. And in a country not known for its subtleties the impact is all the more profound.

Ghomi, west Georgia’s answer to polenta, is almost always made with corn meal. Giorgi went old school by using millet, which was the staple before corn arrived to Georgia several hundred years ago. It is ten times lighter than the thick mash we are accustomed to and is served with a ladle of his kharcho, tender veal stewed in a deep, earthy walnut sauce. This is a must-order, and one dish where you will lick the plate clean.

The wine list includes an excellent selection of natural vintages as well as a fine house wine by Besini Winery. We highly recommend Natalia’s chacha, perfectly infused with a blend of wild herbs that include danduri (purslane) and ombalo (pennyroyal).

Giorgi’s target audience are locals who understand Georgian cooking and can live a day without eating khinkali and mtsvadi. TripAdvisor, however, has changed the dynamic by attracting tourists who don’t always “get it.”

The 39-year-old chef says he was shocked to see Salobie Bia had made number one restaurant in Tbilisi. “Tourists started coming all dressed up in evening gowns, like they just stepped out of a Bentley,” he recalls, pulling up a review in Russian from his phone.

“She says if this is the best Georgian restaurant, why is it so small? The sign is so small and it is an ugly little basement. They didn’t even eat here. A few more people also gave us bad reviews and now we are down to number six,” Giorgi says. “I’m very happy,” he quickly adds.

Editor’s note: Salobie Bia has moved and is now located at 17 Shota Rustaveli Ave.

This article was originally published on October 30, 2018.

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