No neighborhood is complete without that friendly corner shop that often provides the perfect excuse to pop out of the house for a bit. And when that corner shop serves up the most delectable juicy khinkali and fresh drafts served up in freezer-chilled pint mugs, there’s a dangerous temptation to linger and indulge.
Kutkhe literally means “the corner” in Georgian, a no-frills basement restaurant at the corner of two frequented streets in Tbilisi’s left bank district of Marjanishvili. Located just two streets down from Fabrika – the multifunctional art and social space that helped gentrify the former overlooked and disheveled neighborhood – we couldn’t help but pop in while out on some errands on a sweltering day, easily lured by the simple chalkboard outside that promised khinkali, beers, kebabs and fries served up in air-conditioned comfort.
Khinkali are an ubiquitous table item across Georgia, but a good version – one with just that right mixture of spices that includes a pinch of caraway locals call dzira (and often confused for jeera or cumin by first-time expats wondering why their curry tastes funny), chili flakes (just enough for kids to handle), fresh cilantro leaves for a touch of greens to cut the fat, and juicy fresh minced meat wrapped up in a perfect packet of dough that’s not too thick to be chewy, yet with just enough tensile strength to make sure the dumplings don’t break and leak out the juices – is enough to have epicureans break out into rapturous prose. Every newly discovered khinkali joint is enthusiastically shared between circles of friends. And the khinkali at Kutkhe induce just that.
39-year-old Shota Likokeli acquired the basement space where Kutkhe stands in 2016, just before quitting his job working at the mortgage department of the local TBC Bank. He had spent 11 years there at a desk job: “I couldn’t take it anymore and quit just before completing another year’s contract – it would have been my twelfth year,” he says. He started a second-hand clothing shop in the basement space and ended up renting the business and space out for the next four years until the business shut shop in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Every newly discovered khinkali joint is enthusiastically shared between circles of friends. And the khinkali at Kutkhe induce just that.
This was when Shota and his family decided to turn the family’s longstanding tradition and skill of making khinkali and pelmeni (an east European dumpling) into a small business. Shota’s family is from Khevsureti, a mountain region in the high Caucasus where Georgian khinkali are supposed to have originated. “Our family’s khinkali were always appreciated by friends and neighbors. So we started a small takeaway business selling frozen khinkali and pelmeni and it worked pretty well,” narrates Shota, detailing how they roped in a relative to help with the business and how he’d spend the whole day folding dumplings with his aunt, Nana, and his father, Gela. Once pandemic restrictions eased and restaurants could reopen, Shota decided to turn the space into a restaurant and bar, and that’s when Kutkhe opened up to diners late last year.
A football fan of FC Bayern Munich, Shota couldn’t help but turn the place into a man cave of sorts, with a giant projector in place for premier league matches. But most days, it features nostalgia-inducing retro music videos ranging from Sonny and Cher to Prince, Queen and Smokie playing on screen. On one of our first visits with friends and kids in tow, Shota kindly offered to stream Peppa Pig – to the utter delight and hypnotized fascination of the kids – so the adults could talk while waiting for khinkali.
The kitchen in Kutkhe is still run by Shota’s aunt, Nana, who works tirelessly all day making khinkali from scratch the moment each order is placed. Her kebabs and khachapuri on skewers, another house specialty, are worth trying, as are the excellent fries and spicy Mexican potatoes. The standard cucumber and tomato salad helps add some freshness to the table and with endless beer on the tap, it’s quite easy to turn the small space of six tables into an intimate party space. On each of our visits, neighbors drop by often with kids in tow to gossip and share a pint, adding to the convivial vibe. The best part – despite heavy inflation all around in Tbilisi – the bill is the lightest item served up.
Published on September 02, 2022