Follow a narrow alley radiating off the newly renovated Lado Gudiashvili square whose surrounding rebuilt period houses now exudes the tourist-attracting pastiche pleasantness of reconstructed historic centers, and you’ll stumble upon Uzu House, the sole standing habited ruin left on Saiatnova street. Uzu means “vortex” in Japanese, explains Yamato Kuwahara, the reticent founder of the space, which is registered as a non-profit and functions like an informal art residence – “This space is a vortex that brings different people together…it’s a space for everyone, no concept or philosophy attached, ” he adds.
While Uzu House opens up its space to anyone who wants to visit on Thursdays and Saturdays, its Saturday ramen parties has folks in the know bookmarking dates to tuck into delicious bowls of ramen cooked up on an open wood stove patched out of discarded bricks from the surrounding semi-demolished buildings.
A bunch of volunteers gather the evening before to start the broth, while others hand-knead dough and roll out the noodles. A third group sees to braising cuts of pork belly for chashu and other garnishings. The broth is left simmering overnight till the next day’s ramen party is officially announced on the Uzu House Facebook page. Perhaps it’s the slow-simmering bone broths cooked on firewood or the camaraderie involved, but the rich soup, delicate pork chashu and silky hand-kneaded noodles are deliciously addictive. To make the event more vegetarian-friendly, a soy based spicy dandan noodle dish has also been added to the menu.
A donation box placed on the counter asks visitors to leave a contribution of minimum 12 Gel (approximately $4) to help cover expenses and make it affordable for all, a trifle for the depth of flavor in the portions served up which in turn has folks willingly turn in bigger bills without expecting change. The ramen Uzu House dishes out is probably one of the best and cheapest in town, but it does come with a clause – people are asked to wait before going for seconds if there’s a crowd still waiting to be served, and guests are expected to wash their own dishes and share any wine or beer they bring along with them.
Although Uzu House has the vibe of a colorful squat, Yamato and his housemates do pay a rather stiff rent of $600 a month that’s barely covered by proceeds from its food parties. While the initial idea was to introduce local residents to Japanese cuisine and invite volunteers from other nationalities to cook their food as well, popular demand has made ramen the Saturday special while Thursdays are reserved for other dishes – biryani, curry, lobio and bortsch having had their turn.
It takes us a few weekends and bowls of ramen before we can corner Yamato again to dig a bit deeper into his story and the rationale behind Uzu House. The 21-year-old tells us he left high school in Japan to escape the social pressures and expectations of Japanese culture and traveled to Germany as an angst-ridden soul in his late teens. “I was ready to die,” he states candidly. But while traveling through Leipzeig he met an older Japanese man he calls Kenji-san who invited him to a community space he’d help start called Das Japanische Haus or “The Japanese House,” where Yamato would live as a volunteer for a few years before moving to Georgia to start Uzu House.
The ramen at Uzu House also benefits from a circulating crowd of itinerant Japanese visitors for whom the place has become an informal embassy of sorts. The early months of perfecting different ramen recipes involved master classes from Kuni Takabayashi, who ran a successful ramen joint in Marrakesh before he sold the business and moved to Georgia with his family, drawn by the one year visa free stay offered to citizens of more than 80 countries, including Japan. Other regular volunteers, like Kanji Sakemi, moved to Georgia to learn to make natural wine, meaning the kitchen at Uzu hosts a variety of skilled volunteers.
On special days, the menu expands to other Japanese dishes like udon, hosted by the visiting co-owner of a trendy Japanese restaurant called OhMeshi in Yerevan. Other successful culinary specials have included mochi rice cakes made with a wooden mortar and pestle, carved by Yamato just for the occasion. Yamato was also recently invited to participate in the Georgian version of Masterchef, an acknowledgement of his contribution to the local dining scene although he steered clear of the ramen for the episode and opted to make fish tempura with Japanese-style tartar sauce served with rice and miso soup, which was lapped up enthusiastically by local celebrity chef Tekuna Gachechiladze between takes.
While Uzu House has carved its space as a niche-dining commune in Tbilisi, Yamato is not sure how long this experimental social space will continue. Demolition teams could move in any time, and Yamato will have to then look for a new place to continue his ramen parties. But for now, Uzu House has earned its stars as the most discrete experiential ramen joint in town and an unlikely player in the local culinary scene.
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