2022 was marked by the rebirth and reshuffle of the Tbilisi food scene, which was strongly impacted by almost two years of pandemic-related restrictions. In September, the reopening of the iconic Café Littera located in the Sololaki district was a sign that the lean days were over. Some other restaurants didn’t recover and closed for good but a bunch of new eateries sprang out across town.
Quite surprisingly, the war in Ukraine has not affected the trend. In an unlikely turn of events, the influx of thousands of Russians, Belarusians and Ukrainians – many of whom are highly-skilled remote workers – have brought a new clientele to the local restaurants and bars. But, as in many places across the world, the year was also marked by stiff inflation which is reflected in the increased prices of raw food products and meals at restaurants. The Tbilisi-based ISET policy institute releases a monthly “Khachapuri index” which monitors the price of the ingredients necessary to bake the famous national cheese pie; that is, yeast, flour, milk, eggs, butter and cheese. The index from September 2022 unveils an astounding 38% year-to-year price increase for the khachapuri and highlights the skyrocketing inflation of dairy products. Some supermarkets have even started to put anti-theft tags on imported butter.
All this in mind, we might not have eaten out as much as in previous years, but 2022 also brought some long-lasting food memories. The following is a brief list of our best experiences, mixing uplifting restaurant dishes and down-to-earth food pleasures from around the corner.
It is a euphemism to say that summers in Tbilisi are long and hot. This year, the temperatures rose above 35°C (95 °F) for several weeks. There are few ways to escape the relentless heat, but indulging in a fresh slice of watermelon might be one of the better options. Watermelons are usually imported from the neighboring province of Kakheti and watermelon stands are found in every Tbilisi neighborhood. Often, they consist of just a minivan full of the giant fruit parked on the side of the road or driving slowly with speakers screaming: “SA-ZAM-TRO” and “NES-VI” – the two words that mean watermelon and melon in Georgian. Overstuffed grocery stores also find spare space to display the two summer delights.
While there is no issue with the number of watermelons channeled to the capital, it is often more challenging to find a tasty one. Sun and high temperatures help increase the ratio of ripe watermelons but there is no guarantee of not being disappointed with rosy and dull flesh when cutting the fruit in two.
In our quest, we tried a few grocery stores located around the Sabcho – the Georgian word for soviet or council – square next to where we live until we ventured into the one which shares the same retail space with a butcher. There was a big wooden box next to the counter with watermelons in it. The previous customer just asked for a “good and dark one,” so we followed suit and repeated the same sentence. Back home, the color of the flesh was indeed dark red, the melon juicy and tasteful. We knew where we had to come back over and over until the end of the summer season.
Unfound Door Gastrobar
Opened last March, Unfound Door is a new venue on the West Bank of the Mtkvari river, along the busy Agmashenebeli avenue. As it is possible to extrapolate from the name, finding it requires a little effort. The entrance is located in a rather hidden corner of a courtyard connected to the main avenue. Unfound Door is a chic boutique hotel occupying an old classical building which has been renovated. When climbing the stairs leading to the bar, it felt a bit like time travel back to the cosmopolitan years of the turn of the 20th century. At that time, the current Marjanishvili district was known as Neu Tiflis, “new Tbilisi” in German, as its development was sparked by the settlement of a German community at the invitation of the Russian imperial authorities.
The bar and the dining room are cozy, mixing old and new furniture and decorative items with style. The food served is innovative both in taste and presentation. Unfound Door’s menu has just a dozen items on it, and all have evocative names such as “Georgian Traveler,” “Crispy island,” “Tropical Flash” or “Green Surrealism.” These include a selection of bruschettas, cold and warm dishes and a few desserts, all in which sweet and savory tastes are mixed with a level of audacity rare for the Georgian capital. We went for the “Magical Bruschetta” with arugula, cream, cheese, mushrooms and a few berries, and then for the “Sweet Oasis” tart which boasts a mousse mixing pistachio and basil and a raspberry center.
We originally tried Unfound Door Gastrobar without much thought – appealed by some pictures on social media – and we were left amazed both by the place and the food we tasted.
It started a few years ago with a colorful booth on one of the streets above Rustaveli avenue, not far from the parliament. It was – and still is – written below the counter: “We serve happiness and handmade ice cream.” Though there is no scarcity of happiness in Tbilisi, it has always been hard to get a handmade ice cream treat.
Cone Culture has expanded and opened a few other locations, but whenever we feel like we want a real ice cream we venture to the original stand with its colorful facade decorated with street art, a few benches to sit on, the shadow of nearby trees and most of all the relative quietness of the Taras Shevchenko street.
The names of flavors are clipped on each side of the counter – left for Georgian, right for English. Depending on your mood, you can go for something classic like vanilla, chocolate or coffee, or get some culinary adventure by picking black tea and brownie or blue cheese, for example. The list might change slightly depending on the season and the availability of fruit. Whenever it is available, we love to purchase one scoop of honey lavender – the scoops are quite generous. The blend of the two tastes is both subtle and hints at sensory excursions in the south of France. We also never fail to choose a homemade waffle cone over a cup. Then, we just sit and enjoy our ice cream as if it was an everlasting moment.
The debate over where to find the best khinkali in town can easily become a matter of dispute. Many articles, including on this website, have already been dedicated to this hot debate and there appears to be no consensus across Tbilisians.
Trying out all the spots is also out of the question, so this is, of course, a very subjective and incomplete ranking. But for us, this top place is Zodiaqo – and when you find khinkali you love, it makes you want to stick to one place. We went there first at the invitation of friends and selected a few different dishes, but the khinkali stood out.
Good khinkali can be found in many restaurants. What makes Zodiaqo special in our eyes is that the dough is both thin and stretchy, the filling juicy and well-seasoned. And most importantly, the quality is consistent. In addition to various versions of the meaty khinkali (telavuri with pork and cumin, kalakuri with pork, beef and herbs), Zodiaqo also proposes vegetarian options of khinkali, one with cheese and another with mushrooms. Take your time here and don’t be afraid that your khinkali might get cold – you can always ask the waiter to take the plate and bring them back fried, making it even more delicious.
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