Saotsari

If you’ve been following this blog, you know about some of the experiences we’ve had eating, cooking and drinking our way through this culinary playground of a country: salty and rich smoked pork in Racha; spicy adjika sauces in Samegrelo; grape desserts (and wine, of course), in Kakheti; and so many more.

But what we haven’t written about much are restaurants. Specifically, Tbilisi restaurants.

Over the last three months, we’ve been able to explore the culinary scene in Tbilisi like never before. Living in the city for the first time gave us ready access to dozens of restaurants that have been on our must-try list for years as well as new recommendations from friends.

We’ve been to the highly acclaimed restaurants like Culinarium, Cafe Littera and Black Lion. Chain restaurants like Machekhela/Samikitno and Shemoikhede Genatsvale. Cozy and stylish cafes like Ezo and Cafe Leila. Places named after beer brands, like Stella Artois and Hofbrauhaus. Places without any distinguishable name at all. European/American places like Pipe’s Burger Joint and Mukha. And dozens more, including, yes, even Wendy’s and Subway (which was exactly the same as in the US, if you’re curious).

We’ve also clinked glasses at some of the best wine bars in the city. Vino Underground is excellent, as are gVino, Rooms Hotel and the beautiful Vinotel.

We were ready for some amazing (საოცსარი – saotsari) experiences.

But the truth is, the word “amazing” gets thoughtlessly tossed around a lot, especially when talking about food and wine. This pizza is amazing, their pasta is amazing, the bacon tastes amazing, it was an amazing bagel…

But I think it is actually very rare to find a dish, a meal or a glass of wine that instills within me a sense of amazement. As in, “I am astonished by this khinkali,” or “these beans are startlingly impressive,” or “I am experiencing feelings of surprise and wonder over the taste of this khachapuri.”

More often than not, in Georgia (as in the US and, in my experience, everywhere else), the food is usually “fine.” Sometimes “good,” and even rarer still, “great.” “Amazing” takes something special.

It is also, of course, entirely subjective. So here are ten Tbilisi dining/drinking experiences that we found to be far better than “fine” and “good,” unquestionably “great,” and perhaps even treading near that elusive “amazing.”


 

Everything at Barbarestan
Using recipes borrowed from and inspired by Barbare Jordadze (a 19th-century Georgian duchess who had assembled a cookbook, which was discovered in recent times at a flea market), Chef Levan Kobiashvili and his team have created, in our opinion, one of the top dining experiences in Tbilisi. Every time we’ve been there, it has been a delight. The food is well-executed: pkhalis made out of pumpkin and even kohlrabi; a savory warm cherry soup; tender roast beef in red wine sauce; beet salad with plums… The list goes on. The interior is rustic and charming, the wine list stocks some of our favorite all-natural qvevri-made wines, the service is impeccable and Chef Levan himself is as friendly and gracious as they come.

 

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Everything at Azarphesha
This is the other gem that, in my opinion, is one of the most exceptional dining experiences in the capital city. Partly owned by wineman, artist & entrepreneur John Wurdeman (whose wife is at the helm in the kitchen), Azarphesha sources only local, seasonal and organic ingredients. From the best kupati (Georgian sausage) and chivistari (Georgian cornmeal & cheese) we’ve had, to fusion dishes like a baked corn casserole with green chilies and Georgian cheese, everything we’ve had is completely alive with flavor. Of course the wine list is impeccable, and its location just a few blocks from Freedom Square means it’s always bustling.

 

The Value at Samikitno
Value is the intersection of price and quality, and in our opinion, no other restaurant in Georgia consistently offers a better value than Samikitno. The menu is huge, they do everything well, and two people can feast there (including drinks and plenty of leftovers) for under $20. But consistency is the key: Samikitno is a chain restaurant. While some people have no love for chains, I appreciate (and in fact admire) the ability to consistently produce good food and experiences at more than one location (and there are several throughout Tbilisi). It doesn’t happen by accident. It takes systems, training, monitoring and management. Samikitno gets it right most of the time. Is the food chef-driven? Absolutely not. But it doesn’t claim to be. It’s just good, solid food. And even though it’s definitely a draw for tourists, most of the time it’s packed with locals. As an added bonus, they brew their own brand of beer (some of the best in Georgia) and fruit sodas, and push the envelope a little by stuffing Georgian stews inside breads traditionally filled with cheese.

 

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Lobio with Rachuli Ham at Paulaner Fan Club
I love lori, the intensely rich ham that comes from the highlands of Racha. While spending a long weekend up there, I ate several clay pots full of lobio — Georgian bean stew — with big chunks of this smokey & fatty deliciousness swimming about. I also ate it at a few places in Tbilisi. My very favorite? At a small soccer bar in Saburtalo on Nutsubidze’s Plateau, within walking distance of our apartment. Perfect seasoning, perfect consistency, the perfect amount of meat… perfect.  One of my favorite dishes, period.

 

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Lobiani at Keria
Keria, also in Saburtalo, has taken everything I love about lobio with Rachuli ham and stuffed it inside bread. Their lobiani shebolili (smoked bean bread) is wafer thin but still decadently rich, and perhaps the best in the city.

 

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Chicken Chkmeruli at Tabla
Take a whole chicken, spatchcock it, fry it in a clay pan, and then pour over a thin sauce made out of milk and garlic. That’s it. It’s called chicken chkmeruli, it’s as simple as can be, and it is flat out delicious. We ate it in restaurants all over the country and even made it at home, but our favorite may be the very first one we had: at a restaurant in the upscale Vake district called Tabla. Everything at Tabla was excellent, and the ambiance is cozy and warm. But the crispy chicken skin and mountain of fresh garlic in their chkmeruli makes it downright addictive. We had to order extra bread to soak up every last drop of sauce.

 

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Acharuli Khachapuri at Retro
Ask anyone where to get the best Acharuli khachapuri — the one with the egg in the middle — and Retro is bound to come up. An institution in Batumi (where we ate as well), the chef has also opened an outpost in the Saburtalo district. Nobody does it better. From the soft crust (which can be hollowed out for those of you on a diet but unwilling to give up all your vices), to the not-too-salty cheese, to the huge creamy egg, it’s everything that you want in this sinfully luxurious dish.

 

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Mountain-style Khinkali at Amo Rame
Next door to Azarphesha, a few streets up from Freedom Square, is a cozy cafe that serves a small selection of mostly European-inspired dishes. Except on weekends. On Saturdays and Sundays, those who know come here for the khinkali. You won’t find them on the menu, but get yourself a liter of house wine, put in your order and settle in for some of the best you’ve ever had. They’re small (maybe two bites), not very juicy and simply seasoned, but somehow they’re addictive. We ordered twenty, and within a few minutes had sent back an order for twenty more.

 

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Achma at Sakhachapure No. 1
Seemingly every place and everyone makes khachapuri in Georgia. Fewer make achma, a style that comes from Adjara and Abkhazia and is actually closer to lasagna than to khachapuri. Sakhachapure No. 1, on Rustaveli Avenue behind the movie theater, nails it. Layers and layers of thin noodles, Georgian cheese and butter, baked to perfection. Unstoppable.

 

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Wine at 8000 Vintages
Unlike most other Tbilisi wine shops, 8000 Vintages caters not to tourists but to Georgians. None of the signs are in English, and it’s in a part of town that you don’t just stumble into. The selection is solid and ever-growing, made up of both natural qvevri and factory-made wines. There are meat and cheese boards if you’re hungry, and you can get many wines by the glass or just pick up a bottle to enjoy inside or outside, or to take home. They even deliver. But perhaps what they do better than any other wine shop or wine bar in the city (and we’ve made the rounds, believe me) comes down to the service. Every time we went, the staff greeted us with smiles. It sounds simple, but it’s rarer than you might think. They were knowledgeable, helpful and happy to help us discover new favorites. The owner is young, motivated and incredibly generous with both his wines and his time.


 

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Tskhovreba

Our time in Georgia is winding down.

The last couple of weeks have been hectic but fun: travel to our former home of Akhaltsikhe (more on that later), lunches and dinners with friends in Tbilisi, the wedding of an old Peace Corps friend, business meetings, spice tastings, sauce tastings, wine tastings, factory tours, shopping for things to bring home… and even a quick detour over to Greece for a wonderful getaway.

Tomorrow we’ll already be en route back to the States. As they say here, დრო მალე მიდის (the time goes quickly).

It’s way too soon to really get our heads around this trip. It’s been… so many things. Different things at different times. Fun and exciting? Absolutely. But definitely not carefree.

Three months is too long to be on “vacation,” and our itinerary was filled with equal parts business and pleasure. When you’re on the go as much as we have been, it’s also hard to get into any sort of routine that feels like “normal life.”

We’re not tourists, but we’re not residents. I guess we’re somewhere in-between. It’s all just “life” (ცხოვრება – tskhovreba).

This isn’t a “wrap-up” post — we have a few more things to share — but we thought we’d share a few images of our regular day-to-day life over here. As regular as it gets.

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Our building.
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The neighborhood. Grocery stores and other shops just down the street.
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The neighborhood.
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Part of the park behind our building.
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Driveway outside our building where I would work out.
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The lift. It worked most of the time.
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Working in the kitchen.
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Out the kitchen window — the Saburtalo district of Tbilisi.
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The kitchen.
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Groceries.
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Hanging laundry to dry.
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The magnificent view from our balcony.
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Storm clouds rolling in.
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Shopping for a garlic press.
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The second-hand clothes market outside our metro stop.
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A typical Tbilisi sidewalk scene.
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On the bus.
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On the marshrutka in Tbilisi.
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Waiting for a marshrutka.
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Waiting at the bus station.
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Waiting in the rain.
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Waiting in the sun.
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Waiting.
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The painting in our stairwell at home.
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Street art.
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Street cat.
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Tbilisi at night from our balcony.

Kubdari

 

I hate kubdari (კუბდარი).

Let me rephrase that. I hated kubdari.

Originating in the highlands of Georgia’s Svaneti region, kubdari is basically a stuffed meat pie. Because its shape and size is often similar to khachapuri, it is sometimes referred to as “Svanetian khachapuri,” even though there isn’t a single curd of cheese in it.

During our time in the Peace Corps we had eaten kubdari a few times. And it was awful.

At trainings, conferences, work luncheons, etc., next to the khachapuri, there was sometimes this other bread. It looked like lobiani (the stuffed bean bread), which I liked. I’d pick up a piece, ice cold, and if all of the filling didn’t just tumble out on the table or down the front of my shirt before making it to my mouth, I’d bite into it.

Not lobiani.

“What is this?” I’d ask.

“Kubdari.”

“What’s that?”

“Meat.”

“What kind of meat?”

“. . . . . I don’t know. Meat. Eat it. It’s delicious.”

It certainly was not. Dry. Chewy. Flavorless. Awful.

Again and again this would happen. I’d see what looked like lobiani, only to be unpleasantly surprised when I discovered it was actually just its boring and unsavory cousin, kubdari.

I finally stopped eating it altogether.

Yet, as we prepared to go to Svaneti a few weeks ago, people were raving about it. “You must eat kubdari in Svaneti! It’s amazing! It’s delicious!”

I had my doubts, but I fully intended to try it, to see if it was better up there in its homeland.

On our way up the mountain last week, our driver asked if we were hungry.

Sure, why not. Recently, the way our eating habits have evolved over here, we’re usually either a) stuffed or b) starving. Not the way we roll in the States, but when you’re traveling as much as we are, mostly as guests of other people, unsure of when your next meal will be, knowing that a full-on multi-course supra feast is a possibility at any given moment, it’s hard to plan our meals and have sensible eating habits. But we came over here to eat, so I’m not complaining.

Our driver would call ahead to a roadside cafe and order kubdari for us, so it would be ready when we arrived. It was “the best kubdari.”

Mmm-hmmm.

We pulled up to a nondescript blue building and went inside.

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What they brought out on a plate was a completely different dish than any kubdari we had eaten before.

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Steaming hot. Packed with lean chunks of meat, diced onions and garlic. Buttery. Salty. Spicy. Absolutely delicious.

Even though it’s easy to just pick up a slice and dive in, we were told that the traditional way of eating it is to peel back the top layer of bread, pulling off pieces and using them to scoop up chunks of the meat inside.

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Later, we spent time learning how to make it. As with all great Georgian food (and most great food in general), it comes down to high quality ingredients and simple techniques executed perfectly.

Sometimes they use pork, but more often beef. Sometimes both. Sometimes even lamb. The meat isn’t ground at all — it’s diced. It’s mixed with chopped onions and garlic and a blend of spices including the zesty and potent Svanetian Salt (a mix of spices on every table in Svaneti, much like salt and pepper in America), hot red pepper and a touch of fennel. As the meat cooks inside the bread, the fat melts, binding the dish together and creating that “buttery” flavor I thought I tasted (there is actually no butter at all in the dish).

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It’s important to taste the meat before you stuff it all in the bread to know if you need to adjust your seasoning, so we cooked a small spoonful on the top of the wood-burning stove. Gas has not made it up into the mountains yet, so wood-burning stoves and ovens are the norm.

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The dough and assembly is essentially the same as with khachapuri.

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Roll it all up, then cook it on both sides on the stovetop before finishing it in the oven.

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I’ll admit it: I was wrong. I’m a convert. I ate three of them in two days.

I love kubdari.

P.S. If you’d like to try authentic Svanetian Salt, go to kargigogo.com and use Coupon Code SVANETI at checkout to save 20% off this delicious spice blend, now through June 30th! It’s great on everything from grilled meats to veggies to breads to eggs… to kubdari. 🙂

Mdidari

We hopped on a bus and headed west to Adjara: the region in southwestern Georgia bordering Turkey and the Black Sea.

I’ve always enjoyed the time we’ve spent in Batumi, the capital of the region, and this visit was no exception (more on that tomorrow).

In the past, going to Batumi was always a chance to step away from the sometimes challenging day-to-day realities of life as a Peace Corps volunteer. We’d stay at a nice hotel, walk along the boardwalk, go swimming, shower several times a day just because we could — and eat “international” food.

But in addition to international dishes like pastas, seafood and pizzas, as well as traditional Georgian food, Adjara has its own cuisine — unique even in Georgia. In fact, you won’t find many Adjaran dishes on most restaurant menus in Tbilisi.

What were these dishes? Naturally, we were intrigued.

Of course, by now just about everyone knows Adjara’s most famous dish, its namesake, and perhaps the most recognizable Georgian dish in the world: Acharuli khachapuri.

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A bread boat stuffed with cheese, baked, then topped with an egg yolk and slab of butter. I regularly see Georgian guys sitting around tables in the morning, each with an Acharuli khachapuri in front of them, putting the whole thing away (in addition to other stuff on the table). Impressive. We split one and were just fine.

But what else did Adjara have to offer?

On the recommendation of a friend, we went to a restaurant in Batumi (Maspindzelo) that specialized in Adjaran cuisine. Although we couldn’t try everything, the three things we ordered were a) huge, b) different and c) extremely rich. Rich, rich, rich (mdidari – მდიდარი).

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This was the malakhto, or green beans with walnuts and herbs. The walnuts really took the beans to another level of richness and depth of flavor.
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This iakhni, or beef in walnut sauce, was very similar to the kharcho we made and ate in Samegrelo, only not quite as spicy.
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This sinori was the star of the evening. Thin pieces of lavash bread rolled up with cheese, baked in butter, then topped with an extra-thick Adjaran sour cream called kaymaghi. Ridiculous. Apparently there is also a sweet version with walnuts and honey.

Adjara is much more than just Batumi and the Black Sea, however. In fact, most of Adjara is mountainous. Up there, in towns and villages like Khulo (where we spent a lovely afternoon) dairy products reign supreme.

Take, for example, borani.

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What’s that you say? It looks like a pool of browned butter on top of baked cheese? That’s because it’s a pool of browned butter on top of baked cheese. Special Adjaran cheese and special Adjaran butter.

(Those who call the Acharuli khachapuri a “heart attack on a plate” have likely never crossed paths with borani.)

It is as rich, decadent and wonderful as you would expect it to be. The cheese is stringy and mild, almost like a mozzarella. Scoop a spoonful onto your plate, go back for some butter, and use bread to soak it up and eat it.

It’s like fondue, if on top of your fondue you poured a cup of hot butter.

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After a few days of eating these and other heartily delicious Adjaran dishes, our last meal in Batumi may not have been authentically Adjaran (or even Georgian), but it sure was refreshing:

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Damoukidebloba

May 26th was/is Independence Day in Georgia, officially commemorating the day in 1918 when the Democratic Republic of Georgia was established in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution.

It’s a major national holiday filled with parades, fireworks, fairs and an outpouring of national pride.

This year was even more special, because it also marks 25 years since Georgia’s independence (damoukidebloba -დამოუკიდებლობა) from the Soviet Union.

Even though we’ve lived in Georgia in the past, this year was actually our first year spending Independence Day in the capital of Tbilisi. How did we celebrate? By eating and drinking, of course.

We had an afternoon lunch date with John Wurdeman, founder and co-owner of Pheasant’s Tears winery and one of the vanguards of Georgia’s natural wine movement. If you’ve spent any amount of time in Georgia or are into its food and wine, chances are good that you’ve heard of “Georgian Johnny.”

John is an American, has lived in Georgia for more than 20 years, and is as deeply in love with this country, its people, traditions, cuisine and wines as anybody I know. In addition to running the winery, John is an artist & polyphonic singer and co-owner of four restaurants as well as a tour company. (I would highly recommend reading more about him and other winemakers in Alice Feiring’s excellent new book, “For The Love of Wine.”)

We were meeting him at Azarphesha, one of his excellent restaurants (and in my opinion one of the best in Tbilisi) located in the Sololaki district of Tbilisi, right behind Freedom Square. It being Independence Day, Freedom Square was closed to traffic for parades, presentations and displays of military equipment.

So it took awhile to get there.

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Once we got there and sat down, John brought out a case of wine that he was sampling, putting together recommendations for a wine list at a friend’s restaurant overseas. A few years ago, there were only around a dozen all-natural wine producers in Georgia. Now there are around 40, and that number continues to grow as winemakers embrace the history and techniques that truly make Georgian wine special.

It was a treat to taste so many all-natural qvevri-made wines, some so new they didn’t even have labels.

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John ordered a half-dozen or so dishes to the table, all of them either contemporary takes on Georgian classics or new dishes that highlight the best local, seasonal and organic ingredients.

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A simple salad of greens, goat cheese, cherries, nuts and sunflower oil.
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Roasted banana peppers with sunflower oil.
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A take on kupati — Georgian sausage — on top of a white bean mash.
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I can’t quite remember what all was in this other than spinach and cheese, but it was light, crispy and delicious.
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John was born in New Mexico. This dish is an homage to his roots, with corn, green chilies and Georgian sulguni cheese.

Many times during this trip it has crossed my mind that Georgia and America are moving in different directions when it comes to buying food. In America, most people get their food from grocery store chains, and buying fresh/local/organic food is (usually) more expensive and harder to find. “Slow food” and “organic” are the buzzwords of the day, as more people aspire to move their pantries in that direction. But in Georgia, eating fresh/local/organic is just the way of life for most people. Only in larger cities are there grocery store chains, and usually only the affluent can afford to go there. Packaged & frozen foods and imported products are becoming more desirable in some circles, not less so.

I digress.

After lunch we walked off our huge meal on Rustaveli Street, the main artery running through central Tbilisi, which was also closed to traffic due to the Independence Day celebrations.

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Up close and personal with ferocious-looking military vehicles.
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There is an American military unit in Georgia, helping train the Georgian armed forces. This soldier was from Florida.
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Everyone loved getting their pictures taken with the tanks!
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The street was alive with people of all ages.
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Feats of strength…
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Face painting…
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Free wine (of course)…
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Product booths and displays…
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Stages (four of them, actually) with music and dancing…
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Miniature Svanetian towers…
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Good beer “with the friends”…
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And even a futuristic Jetsons-style informational booth about Georgia’s 112 service (the equivalent of 911 in the US).

It was an impressive and fun event! Great to see so many Tbilisians out enjoying themselves on the very street that not even 20 years ago was filled with flying bullets, gangsters and darkness.

Later that night we reconvened with John at Vino Underground, Tbilisi’s first wine bar featuring only all-natural qvevri wines. When it first opened a few years ago, natural wine was hard to find in Tbilisi. Most wine stores wouldn’t carry it and restaurants wouldn’t sell it. They wanted what they were used to: factory wine from the Soviet area.

So, John and a small handful of like-minded souls pooled their resources and opened their own bar. Vino Underground became a place where natural wine producers could sell their wine and also hold tastings, create food menus to pair with their wines, etc. Today it is thee place in Tbilisi to learn about and enjoy some of Georgia’s best wines, and regularly welcomes visitors and dignitaries from all over the world.

That evening was a benefit dinner for a friend of theirs who had gotten injured. A young chef used the impossibly small kitchen to create a six-course meal, with wine pairings to match.

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My favorite dish of the night: rare beef tenderloin in a cherry sauce.

I’ve been to wine pairing dinners in the States before. At most of them, you get a few sips of a few wines. But these were not sips or even small pours. These were full glasses. And when your glass was empty? They poured you more. I shouldn’t have expected any less.

At one point, even a bottle of absinthe was opened.

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Absinthe mixed with a sugar-infused ice cube that melts in the glass. Strong.

As the night went on, more and more bottles of wine were opened and enjoyed. Tired from a long journey back from making tea in Guria the day before (more on that tomorrow), we finally had to bow out at 1 AM. I’m told the party continued for a few more hours. I’m not surprised.

These guys (and women) love what they do. They love their wines. They love each other. Their independence from old ways of thinking has gotten them this far. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

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With Mamuka, the owner/winemaker of DoReMi, an up-and-coming producer of natural Georgian wines. 
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Toasting to new friends.
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Thanks, John!

Gaqinuli

Out in the hills of Racha, a good 30 minutes by foot away from the nearest house, is a massive hole in the ground: Saqinule Cave.

The word “saqinule” means “a place for ice,” based on the Georgian word for ice: gaqinuli (გაყინული).

Our friends had come up from Tbilisi with a driver to spend the weekend with us in Racha. At the end of a full day of adventuring, our driver veered off the main road onto a rocky dirt path leading to… somewhere.

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We didn’t really know where. There was talk of a cave, but that’s all we knew. Our driver got lost a couple of times on the way, stopping at a farm house to ask directions. We got out of the car and proceeded on foot through rocks, mud, trees and fields until suddenly we were there.

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At first look, the cave is absolutely frightening. You’re sure that something is alive down there, something you don’t want to see. Something that would love to eat you.

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We stood at the top, peering into the dark emptiness, deciding for certain that we weren’t going down.

(For those of you reading this in your email Inbox, you’ll need to click through to the post in order to see the videos below.)

And then our guide took off, into the cave.

So of course we had to follow.

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Once inside, it was much less scary. The only intimidating part was the steep climb down.

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While it was warm outside in the sun, the deeper we went into the cave, the cooler it got. And at the bottom: ice.

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As with most natural wonders, pictures don’t really do it justice, but hopefully you get some sense of the scale.

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Later, back above ground, the warm glow of a sunset lit our way back to the car.

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Racha, like most of Georgia, is a beautiful place filled with unexpected treasures.

Keipi 

We’ve said before that sometimes you don’t quite know what’s going to happen over here. Case in point: lunch in Racha the other day.

A group of friends drove up in the morning from Tbilisi to spend the weekend with us exploring the beautiful mountains, rivers and ancient churches in this breathtaking region. Before we set out for the day, we had to eat.

There are three restaurants in Ambrolauri, the small town where we stayed. One of them McKinze and I had been to the day before. It was less than impressive. Another one of them was a big hall for events and didn’t necessarily look like a place you just drop by to grab a bite.

The last option was this one, a small roadside establishment. The sign was promising, touting itself as a “Rachuli Kitchen,” featuring dishes like lori, lobiani and other specialties of the region.


Inside, the menu was thorough (updated with the latest prices), and the ambiance was “Georgian rustic.”




But on one end of the restaurant was a table with these guys…

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And on the other end, these guys.

A party was underway, and our table was literally in the middle of it.

The singer was good. Very, very loud — so loud that we couldn’t really carry on a conversation at our table — but good. The guys were toasting, laughing and generally having a great time.

We ordered some food, including lobio (bean stew) and lori (the salty, smoky & fatty ham that I can’t get enough of).

image

And then the party, this celebration (keipi – ქეიფი), started to spread.

It’s not entirely uncommon to be in this situation. As you should know by now, Georgians are typically a lively and exuberant bunch who enjoy drinking, singing and dancing. They also enjoy sharing their festive mood with others who are around, especially foreigners.

One of our friends happens to be a very good traditional Georgian dancer, which is also not uncommon. In Georgia, most young girls and boys alike are raised learning the intricate footwork and hand movements of the many regional Georgian dances. Therefore, pretty much everyone knows how to perform them, at least a little bit. They’re done at weddings, supras and, in this case, at a restaurant in the middle of the afternoon.

Our friend hopped to her feet, and was soon joined by a few of the men.


In the States, older guys jumping in to dance with younger women at a restaurant might seem inappropriate or lewd, especially if the guys had been drinking. That’s not necessarily the case here. Traditional Georgian dance is a very precise art form, with specific roles for men and different roles for women. There’s virtually no touching or dancing together; the man and women more often dance around each other.

But there’s also the occasional slow song, which is perfect for the kind of dancing you might remember from middle school or from your cousin’s wedding reception.


As the only guy in our group, I had my own responsibilities to tend to: drinking wine. It was lunchtime and we had a whole day of exploring and hiking ahead of us, so I didn’t want to join the party, but it would have been rude not to accept a toast or two. After all, what’s more fun for a Georgian man at a party than drinking with a foreigner?

Actually, drinking with a foreigner who can speak Georgian is more fun. Which is why in this particular instance I pretended not to. Otherwise, I might still be there.



The gentlemen (and really, they were — very nice and respectful guys) sent a jug of homemade Khvanchkara wine over to our table for us to enjoy and went back to their party as we ate. Before we left, on our way out the door, there was time to squeeze in a few more dances.


And that was lunch. Our time in Racha was off to a great start.

Khvanchkara 

When you arrive in Ambrolauri — the first and largest town (pop. 3000) in the northern region of Racha — you are greeted by perhaps the biggest bottle of wine you’ve ever seen.


Although the bottle is (presumably) empty, it’s a great advertisement for this region’s famous wine: Khvanchkara (ხვანჭკარა).

As with many types of wine in Georgia, Khvanchkara isn’t a grape; it’s a micro-climate (otherwise known as an appellation in the US and Western Europe). Khvanchkara wine is actually a blend of two grapes: Aleksandrouli and Mudzhuretuli. It’s usually semi-sweet, kind of rare and expensive (compared to other more well-known wines in Georgia) and has the added distinction of being the favorite wine of Ioseb Jugashvili (you might know him as Joseph Stalin).

Khvanchkara is also a village just a few kilometers west of Ambrolauri. One of our friends put us in touch with Aleko Sardanashvili, a young winemaker in the village who is slowly but surely trying to put Khvanchkara on the map for both tourism and winemaking.

Aleko and his friend picked us up, and a short time later we arrived at his home and guest house.


Aleko is someone who puts his energy into doing things The Right Way. For instance, the guest house in the photo above is a very old traditional Rachuli home that was found abandoned in another village. Aleko and his friends took it apart, hauled it to Khvanchkara on a truck, and reassembled it. That is dedication to authenticity.

The guesthouse sits on a piece of land that has been in his family for generations. As a younger man, during Georgia’s post-Soviet civil wars, Aleko took off for education and opportunities overseas, settling in Malta for eight years. After Misha Saakashvili restored order (and ignited hope) in Georgia, Aleko returned to Tbilisi and lived there for a few years before the lure of village life and winemaking beckoned him west.

Sadly, the population of Khvanchkara (and Racha in general) has been decreasing dramatically every year. Young people, facing a future with few jobs and opportunities, flee for Tbilisi and Batumi as soon as they can, leaving behind a sparse geriatric population.

In Racha, Aleko is definitely the exception, not the rule. He is young, motivated, smart and articulate, with a passion for wine and political discourse.

Aleko has a lovely setup for guests. In addition to the guest house, he has a “hut” for tourists to see barrels, grape crushers and a variety of other winemaking equipment.



It takes a long time to build a winemaking business. You need land, you need vines, and you need lots of patience as Mother Nature works her magic over the course of several years.

Right now, Aleko has three small vineyards that — when everything goes well — can produce around a thousand bottles. Sounds like a lot, but when you consider the amount you need for your guests and all of the Georgian holidays and celebrations both large and small, there isn’t enough left to bottle and sell as a business.

This year, unfortunately, a late freeze killed about 70-80% of his crop, making this fall’s harvest (and therefore next year’s output) considerably smaller.

Despite the bad news, Aleko perseveres. This year he is buying and planting two additional vineyards and remodeling a garage on his property, setting it up as his own bottling factory.


In a few years, if all goes according to plan, Aleko will be growing grapes, producing, bottling and selling his own wine, involved in every step of the process and shining a light on a winemaking region that is (so far) a little off the beaten path.

In the meantime, he works. He philosophizes. He graciously hosts curious travelers like us, sharing copious amounts of his own wine (not just Kvanchkara, but the white wine Tsolikouri) and real home-cooked Rachuli food.

Not his label, but his wine. Semi-sweet in just the right amount so that it’s not syrupy, but instead is velvety and smooth.
Real Rachuli ham: lori. Slowly smoked for 3-4 months and heavily salted. It’s like pork belly’s saltier cousin.
They cut up chunks of this beautiful lori and boil it with the lobio (bean stew), making it smoky and delicious.
Our thanks to Aleko and his friends for great wine, food and conversation about Georgia’s past, present and future.

Mshvenieri 

It took a long time to get back from Armenia.

We hired a shared taxi that ended up being a private taxi when there were no other passengers — normally a good thing. But in this case, as our Georgian driver shuttled us foreigners from Yerevan to Tbilisi for half the money he would have gotten had there been the expected two additional fares in the car, his driving lacked, shall we say, urgency.

We stopped six times on the trip. Granted, two of them were because he got pulled over by Armenian police (yes – TWICE)…


…but the other four stops were for less official reasons. Shopping for fish. Shopping for fish again. Talking to friends.

We got back to Tbilisi late. We were tired. We were growly. We didn’t sleep well. We awoke late the next day.

That day, Saturday, was the Tbilisi New Wine Festival, a yearly celebration of the many outstanding winemakers, large and small, who are putting Georgia on the map as a world-class producer of extraordinary wines.

The festival was held on Mtatsminda, the top of the large hill/small mountain in the center of Tbilisi. There, you can find a restaurant, amusement park, TV tower and, on this particular Saturday, several thousand happy people with plastic tasting cups in hand.


Getting up to the top was brutal. There’s a funicular, but it was a mob scene. (I’m pretty sure smart people are already lining up there for next year’s festival.) There are buses. Well, a bus. No chance. You could drive, but even if we had a car, traffic was stopped dead at the bottom of the hill.

And there were stairs. Lots and lots of stairs. So up we climbed. And climbed, and climbed.

By the time we reached the top, the hot sun had left me soaked through my shirt and thirsting for an ice cold beer rather than wine.


Because we got moving so late and arrived later in the afternoon than we wanted, we only had an hour or so before we had to go back through the transportation gauntlet to the absolute opposite end of the city to drop in as guest speakers at our friend’s university class.

I know: first-world problems.

The frustrations of the previous 24 hours could have made a dark cloud hover above our heads for the rest of the afternoon. BUT — Georgian wine to the rescue.

It was an absolutely lovely event.


Milling around, bumping into friends (even those we’d met in other parts of the country)…




Talking to winemakers (and their kids – it was a family affair)…


Sampling family wines that had no bottle or label…


Sampling wines from established producers…


Sampling fruit brandies from our friends at Riravo Distillery…

There was food…


And did I mention wine?

All free, I might add. The appropriate thing to do is to bring home a few bottles, which we did — including one rkatsiteli that hooked us because it smelled just like pungent Georgian cheese. Perhaps we’ll share this bottle between the two of us.


We had a blast. (And we made it across town in plenty of time, if not a little bit tipsy.)


I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: something wonderful (mshvenieri – მშვენიერი) is happening here in Georgia. A Renaissance of sorts. Sure, there are problems, as there are everywhere. But the good things about this country seem to just be getting better. The potential is enormous.

Get here now, if you can. And if you can’t, well, Georgia — it’s food, wine and culture — will be coming your way sooner rather than later. I know it.

Tskhare

All bazaars (markets) in Georgia are fun for me to go to. I love the controlled chaos. The makeshift tables piled high with everything from produce to light bulbs. The sounds of bartering and commerce. The smells. The pickled everything.


The bazaar in Zugdidi, where we were a couple of weeks ago, was even more fun because of the preponderance of my favorite Georgian condiment: adjika.


This spicy, salty and savory treat — a mix of dried spices, garlic, salt and peppers — can be made dry, or with tomatoes as a sauce, or with tomato paste as, well, a paste.

It is said to come from Samegrelo, where Zugdidi is the largest city. In Samegrelo, the native Megrelians have their own language (linguistically related to Georgian, but not so much so that I could make out any words), their own special dishes, and a fondness for all things spicy (tskhare, ცხარე) — something not usually true in other parts of the country.

So it should have come as no surprise that at the Zugdidi bazaar, adjika was on display. Not just the red stuff that we all know and love (don’t we?), but lots of variations, some of which I’d never seen before, including green adjika with sour plums and with mint.

 


We also saw an adjika “factory,” where they were making huge batches of red adjika and green adjika (with fresh cilantro and dill) in meat grinders.





If you don’t know much about adjika yet, I think you will — eventually. Of course we sell the real deal (dry version), but otherwise it’s hard to find in the US. And the Russian versions seen in bottles at Eastern European grocery stores just aren’t the same, in my opinion.

Perhaps it’s time to make some room on the hot sauce shelf for something truly unique and different, alongside the Sriracha, Tabasco, Frank’s and 900 varieties of habanero sauce.