When wandering around Tbilisi, we often find ourselves at a loss when looking to grab a quick, quality snack to fill our stomachs. As much as we love our favorite Georgian cheesy bread, sometimes we want a little something more than khachapuri or pastries. Many times, these inexpensive offerings are infamous for deceiving customers with various forms of cheap filling folded into the dough in lieu of real cheese. Then, of course, there is the ubiquitous shaurma (a transliteration of the Georgian word შაურმა) – an unfortunately tasteless descendent of the Middle Eastern shawarma.
This dearth of quality street food and an abundance of disappointing snacks is an ongoing issue but, as seems to be the story the world over, some entrepreneurial souls realized they could fill this gap during the Covid-19 pandemic, offering quick bites via delivery and takeaway. Since the start of the virus’s spread, three locations have become the pioneers of Georgian street food: Shoti, Barbaresgan and Tamtaki. Though Tamtaki is located in the trendy neighborhood of Vera, the other two recently opened in the very center of Tbilisi, in Bazari Orbeliani.
Unveiled in December 2021, the new Bazari Orbeliani complex hosts both grocery stores and various sellers of artisanal food products on its main floor, and a food court on the upper deck. The pale blue classical building is close to Freedom Square and the newly pedestrianized streets leading to the Presidential Palace, which was relocated in 2018 from a grandiose building that fused architectural elements of the White House and the Reichstag to a smaller, former private residence – that of the Orbelianis, a noble family. Thus, the neighborhood is sometimes called the Orbeliani district, and many landmarks here are given the family’s name.
The ground floor of the market building has been occupied by a chain supermarket for some years, while the upper floors hosted some clothing and shoe stores. Following renovation, these higher floors are back to their historical function as a farmers’ market, which first opened in the same location in 1886. Next to the entrance of the supermarket, a monumental staircase leads to the upper deck of Bazari Orbeliani. The building’s reopening is still fresh and a handful of booths have yet to be rented. One of the empty stalls has on display black and white pictures of the market during the Soviet era: butchers dressed in white chopping ribs and farmers selling potatoes, apples and cabbage.
Passing the food stands selling produce, charcuterie, fish, bread and honey are a few stairs leading to the food court, which offers a large variety of Georgian and foreign options. Located just in sight of the landing are two new favorites of ours for a quick bite: Barbaresgan and Shoti.
While the Georgian kitchen is well-known for its stuffed pastries, sandwiches have long remained a foreign concept and are rarely sold as snacks.
We head to the corner where the latter is located, excited to experience another of its Georgian sandwiches inspired by local flavors. Above the counter, “Shoti” is written in the Georgian and Latin alphabet. It takes its name from a popular Georgian bread, which is baked in a traditional round oven called tone. The kitchen, where Shoti’s mini tone resides, is small. In it, owner Aluda Arabuli bakes cute, 8-inch shoti breads. While the Georgian kitchen is well-known for its stuffed pastries, sandwiches have long remained a foreign concept and are rarely sold as snacks. Shoti is experimenting with what a Georgian sandwich can mean and taste, using the traditional bread as its base.
“First, I am a big lover of junk food. I can eat it every single day,” says 28-year-old Aluda, who sports a beard and a jean jacket. “But what is sold on the streets as Georgian food is a shame for our gastronomy, because we have so much potential.”
Shoti’s menu is split into two sections: open-faced toasties and sandwiches. Each item delves into flavors or meals associated with the Georgian kitchen, like Saperavi wine, spicy adjika sauce, Gurian pie filled with eggs and cheese or the Abkhazian-style chicken. The sandwiches have a mix of five to ten ingredients, which are combined in a subtle and surprising way, and the menu is modified periodically to include seasonal vegetables and herbs. On this most recent visit, we tasted a sandwich of roasted pork ribs with the sour, Georgian plum sauce tkemali, as well as a vegetarian option with a base of oyster mushrooms, tenili string cheese from the Meskheti region and pomegranate seeds. Both were nourishing and unusual, and hit the spot.
“First, I tried handmade lavash flatbread, but I was not happy with the result. So, I baked some small shoti and took out the crumb and … it unleashed so many possibilities.
Aluda launched Shoti in March 2020 as a delivery-only kitchen in the upper-class district of Vake. He spent two years running the business through food delivery apps. “We had no other choice. After a lot of testing, we had put the menu together, picked a name. Then, five days later, the prime minister declared that all restaurants had to close due to the pandemic,” Aluda says. They were finally able to open their booth at Bazari Orbeliani on December 20.
“We are striving to use quality local products. As much as possible, we want to follow the farm to table philosophy,” Aluda says. He went himself to the neighboring agrarian region of Kakheti to choose his producers for fresh meat, poultry and dairy.
Providing quality Georgian fast food is also the motto of the nearby Barbaresgan, whose business model followed a similar pattern to Shoti’s, except that it is the offspring of Barbarestan, a fine-dining restaurant opened in 2015 in the Marjanishvili district.
“We started [takeaway orders] during the first wave of Covid, when we closed the restaurant and were out of jobs,” says Barbaresgan director Tornike Qurasbediani, who is 29 years old. “We decided to make a delivery fast food service. That’s why we chose Barbaresgan, which means ‘from Barbare’ while Barbarestan means ‘at Barbare’.” The name is an homage to Barbare Jorjadze, a 19th-century progressive who advocated for women’s rights and who wrote the first Georgian cookbook, Georgian Cuisine and Tried Housekeeping Notes.
Barbaresgan’s menu focuses on two Georgian staples: mchadi (small, corn flour bread) and cakes of ghomi (a polenta from Western Georgia). Both are transformed into sandwiches with a small selection of fillings such as cheese, meat and eggplant, or red beans prepared the Georgian way with walnuts.
“Our idea was to recreate as a fast food the Georgian tastes that we usually have at home from the cooking of our mums and aunts,” Tornike says. Compared to Shoti’s, the sandwiches at Barbaresgan are round and small, the mchadi a bit crunchy and the ghomi more soft and chewy. A bit like a large bao, each of the sandwiches focuses on one main ingredient – so we couldn’t help but order a sampling of several. Afterward, we rewarded our day of food research with dessert, a reinterpretation of the classic Easter bread paska, a sweet bun quite similar to the Italian panettone.
From the upscale Bazari Orbeliani, both businesses – which still mostly work via delivery services – are hoping to open more branches in Tbilisi, and beyond. Aluda and his partner were thinking to open a similar spot in Kyiv, before the war changed their plans. Both entrepreneurs know that, while the worst of the pandemic might be behind us, tough times are ahead for the restaurant industry in Georgia as Western sanctions against Russia affect tourism and the prices of raw materials.
Regardless, when we stopped by Shoti today, a large Ukrainian flag was hanging behind the counter. Since the start of the Russian invasion on February 24, many businesses have shown their solidarity with Ukraine, and Georgians are regularly taking to the streets to demonstrate their support. “We are fully behind Ukraine. I was young in 2008 [the year of the Russo-Georgian War], but I remember everything, especially how many years were needed to recover from it,” Aluda says.
While it seems Georgian street food options are growing, the city itself is also transforming, becoming more accommodating to street eating – we aren’t totally sure which came first. Bazari Orbeliani is close to Dedaena, an old park located on the bank of Mtkvari River. It has been recently upgraded, and now boasts a skatepark and an extensive lawn which is fully packed with youth picnicking and partying on late summer evenings. It’s the perfect spot to indulge in the local treasures from Shoti or Barbaresgan.
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