Once upon a time, Tbilisi wasn’t too kind to vegans – the reputation was sealed when a malicious attack in 2016 by “sausage-wielding” far-right extremists on the city’s then only vegan café made international headlines. Nonetheless, a handful of chefs and restaurant owners are determined to make a change. Tbilisi’s selection of vegan restaurants has increased since the attack, and these days, even those seeking a more gourmand fine-vegan-dining experience finally have an address to call on at Living Vino Vegan Restaurant and Natural Wine Bar.
Living Vino’s Ukrainian founder Dimitri Safonov has long been acquainted with Georgia’s wine history – his first glass of homegrown Rkatsiteli was offered to him at the age of 12 by his grandfather, an amateur winemaker from now Russian-occupied Crimea. Years later, Dimitri moved to London, where he lived and worked for more than a decade, building a rather quirky portfolio as a digital marketing strategist for e-commerce, online betting and crypto-gambling ventures. The successful marketing business provided the financial stability Dimitri needed to pursue his insatiable love for wine – that which his grandfather unwittingly uncorked in him at an age when it could have been labelled a delinquent act.
Dimitri signed up for London-headquartered Wine and Spirit Education Trust’s (WSET) wine course and painstakingly worked his way up to the highest ranking Level 4 Diploma. It took him two years to complete, and then he then he topped it up with a wine educator’s certificate. During his studies, he became fixated on sulphate-free natural wines. By this time, Dimitri had embarked on a vegan diet, interested in its health benefits, while dabbling with Buddhist meditation techniques. “I was always obsessed with dieting, health and sports, but finally it all just made sense – ethically, morally and physically,” he says, on how his vegan lifestyle, wine pursuits and spiritual quest merged. He left London for good in 2018, moved back to Ukraine for a bit and traveled widely, making dozens of trips to Georgia to explore the country’s natural wine scene.
Dimitri opened Living Vino in March 2020, just a few weeks before Tbilisi hunkered down for its first Covid lockdown. The pandemic was brutal to restaurants worldwide, and in Georgia alone, at the height of the pandemic, 250,000 workers were affected by restaurant closures nationwide and less than a tenth of Tbilisi restaurants were able to adapt to delivery services. There couldn’t have been a more ill fated time to open a niche dining venture, and yet Living Vino switched to delivery and underwent two location changes as pandemic restrictions evolved. Eventually, the restaurant was able to nestle down in its current address in Tbilisi’s charming and rapidly gentrifying crumbly old quarter of Sololaki, famous for its historic buildings with their grand neo-baroque facades and ornate wooden balconies that hover over quiet courtyards. Living Vino took over the charming, ivy cocooned storefront of a previous restaurant that retired during the pandemic
I’m listening to Dimitri’s story while voraciously tucking into a late lunch of gnocchi with artichokes and sun-dried tomatoes dressed in coriander pesto and garnished with micro-greens and rocket leaves. Paired with a chilled glass of DoReMi’s crispy Tsitska, I have to admit it was a near-perfect meal more deserving of a dinner date on a well laid table than the bar stool where I was perched to make it easier for us to chat.
We discuss the restaurant’s menu, which offers a few imitation meat options in addition to excellent salads and pastas. Dimitri believes the vegan meat options reassure wary newcomers to vegan dining. They can start with something familiar – the house Zen burger made from a patty of mushroom and seitan (a wheat protein) does a great job of replicating a meaty chewy texture. Served as a lunchtime combo with zucchini salad and cauliflower wings, it’s one of the restaurant’s best sellers. I watched a diner on a nearby table dive into his plate of seitan schnitzel served on a bed of quinoa and red bean salsa and nod his approval. A majority of Living Vino’s clients are long-term Tbilisi residents although as one of the few vegan restaurants in town, guidebooks now lead many tourists to their doors. More recently, there’s also been increased footfall from people seeking to support Ukrainian ventures.
A few days before I caught up with Dimitri, a group of us had attended the restaurant’s fundraising dinner for Ukrainian refugees arriving in Georgia. We dined on crisp white linen with sparkling wine glasses and fine cutlery, enjoying every bit of a five course meal that included meat-free borsch, falafel topped salad with tahini dressing, a tasting plate of vegan sausage with nuts and Greek olives, and seitan and soy steak served with mashed potatoes. The moist vegan chocolate brownie for dessert received undisputed approval. We washed all of this down with a selection of salubrious wines including Baiai’s Krakhuna and Gravitas Kisi, a South African Chenin Blanc, as well as shots of smooth Ukranian honey-and-pepper vodka and Georgian fruit chacha.
Dimitri is channeling his energy into humanitarian projects to aid arriving Ukrainians in Tbilisi as well as those back home. The war has postponed his summer plans to open a branch of Living Vino in Kyiv – though he’s now all the more determined to realize this project once the war is over.
Meanwhile, walk-in customers have recently increased – part solidarity and part curiosity – it’s the start of the month of Lent when observant Orthodox Christians stay off meat until Orthodox Easter in May. “We see many new Georgian customers during this period, and a few also do return after their fast,” quips Dimitri with a conspiratorial twinkle in his eyes.
“If meat eaters switch to plant based meals even for one meal a week, it makes a difference for the planet,” Dimitri adds, echoing studies by scientists on the urgent need to reduce meat consumption and switch to plant based food to help reduce greenhouse emissions. And herein lies the confession of the ulterior motive that Living Vino has for Tbilisi – to be the space for conscientious eating while not compromising on the wine. But it’s a ploy we’re happy to fall for and raise our wine glasses to.
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