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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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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Kerdzebi, Part 2

More from our recent visit to Sagarejo, where we spent two great days making a variety of Georgian dishes. 

Tatara (თათარა) & Churchkhela (ჩურჩხელა)

The juice from grapes flows like water over here. Oftentimes in the form of wine, for which Georgia is famous, but also in its unfermented form. Add a bunch of flour, heat and time, and you have yourself a thick & mildly sweet concoction called tatara (or pelamushi).

It’s great the way it’s traditionally served – on a plate, sprinkled with walnuts. Or, string some of those walnuts with a needle and thread and dip them in the thickened grape juice, and the result is churchkhela – sometimes referred to as “Georgian Snickers.”

It is said that there is so much energy (calories) in churchkhela that Georgian soldiers used to carry them as their only source of food during ancient times. Portable, durable and delicious, whether you’re going off to battle or not.

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How the nuts are cut for churchkhela is very important. Long pieces of the white part of the nut are preferred.

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Mixing the grape juice and flour. This is juice from the white rkatsiteli grape, although any grape juice can be used.

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It’s heated until very thick.

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From here it can go directly on a plate…

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…or you can dip your stringed nuts and hang them up to dry. Both are delicious and, as you might imagine, very filling.

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Abkhazura (აბხაზურა)
Originating in the northwestern region of Georgia called Abkhazia (now a breakaway state with its own Russia-backed government), abkhazura is kind of like a sausage. 

The spiced meat filling is wrapped in caul fat, which is the stomach lining from an animal – in this case, cow. 

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Pieces of the caul are snipped down to size with scissors.

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The filling includes ground pork, spices like kindzi and blue fenugreek – and the surprising addition of whole dried barberries, which gives the meat unexpected pops of texture and tartness.

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I had eaten abkhazura many times, but this was the first time I had made it. My rolling technique needed guidance.

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A basket of abkhazura, ready for the frying pan.

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They cook up much like small sausages, with the caul fat serving the dual purpose of adding flavor and keeping the meat together.

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The final product, served with a garnish of onions and pomegranate seeds for more tartness!

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Khachapuri (ხაჭაპური)
As with khinkali, we are intimately familiar with Georgia’s famous cheese-stuffed bread, khachapuri. We have made literally thousands of them in the last few years, yet it’s still always a treat to roll up our sleeves and get our hands covered in dough while learning little nuances that slightly differentiate one recipe from another.

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The cheese should always be the star, and in Georgia this is easy. So many cheeses, each a little different in how it melts, how it is salted and how “close to the cow” it is. We made this khachapuri with a pretty salty and creamy Imeruli cheese from a nearby village.

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McKinze rolls it out under the watchful eyes of our instructor.

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Ready to be cooked.

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Khachapuri can either be baked or cooked in a hot pan. In Georgia, you use the resources you have around you. Since this was sort of a makeshift kitchen in a room at the youth center and not a full home/restaurant kitchen, a portable propane tank served as the stove all day. It worked like a charm.

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Jonjoli (ჯონჯოლი)

One of the most elusively mysterious Georgian foods outside of the Caucasus region is jonjoli. Elusive, because as far as I have been told, the flowering shrub that it comes from doesn’t even grow in the US. 

Here, this Caucasian Bladdernut plant is everywhere.

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The flowers and stems are fermented, salted and combined with sliced onions to create a piquant appetizer seen on tables around the country. It’s an acquired taste, but once your palate warms up, it’s easy to start craving it.

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Check back tomorrow for the last segment of this post! (Miss the first part? Check that out here.)

 

Stumartmokvareoba

We’re celebrating an anniversary this month: it was six years ago that we first came to Georgia! While the memories of our first days and weeks in country are a bit blurry (jet lag + culture shock), I do remember being amazed by how incredibly nice everyone was to us.

We lived in a small village outside Borjomi and so many families enthusiastically invited us in to their homes, fed us ridiculous amounts of food and smiled patiently at our attempts to say simple things in Georgian.  Some even offered me slippers so my feet wouldn’t get cold.

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Sean and McKinze in 2010, shortly after arriving in Georgia

Little did we know then that we were being treated to Georgia’s famous hospitality (stumartmokvareoba – სტუმართმოყვარეობა).   We’ve experienced so much generosity and kindness over the past six years and can attest that the culture of hospitality in this country deserves to be famous.

Case in point: when we traveled to Guria, we didn’t know anyone there – only loose introductions from friends. But the incredibly gracious hosts we met spent entire days with us, taking us on all sorts of adventures. And, as is customary, they fed us – plenty.

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Our host treated to this dry aged and slow smoked pork (lori – ლორი), raised on the family farm.  Wow. 
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Our host’s take on gupta (გუფთა), with meat balls, fried onions, tomato paste, a little rice and seasoned with blue fenugreek (utskho suneli),  ground coriander (kindzi) and fresh herbs.
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A type of khachapuri cheese bread that we hadn’t tried; the dough was more like a pancake batter, made of yogurt, eggs, flour and baking soda.  The cheese was mixed with the batter before being cooked in a pan. 
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This roasted chicken was seasoned with hot red peppers, oil and salt.  Crispy on the outside and moist on the inside, it was exactly how I like my chicken.  
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Sean giving a rousing final toast in Georgian at the end of a supra.

In situations like these, it’s impossible to repay the kindness we’ve received.  So we offer our most sincere thanks, multiple times, and promise to show a bit of Georgian hospitality to our guests in the future.

A Homecoming of Sorts

Since finishing our Peace Corps service and leaving Georgia nearly four years ago, Sean and I have been plotting our way back. Not just to visit – although we love visiting Georgia! – but to actually live there again, if only for a short while. Happily, we’re finally doing just that. We fly out in two weeks and will be in Georgia for three months.

While it would be tempting (and lovely, let’s be honest) to spend our days strolling the streets of Tbilisi and becoming regulars at our neighborhood khachapuri café, we never envisioned this time as a vacation. Rather, we want to spend it exploring a subject that has intrigued us for years: Georgian food and wine.

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Baked Acharuli Khachapuri at a favorite spot in Tbilisi

Even considering our experiences with Georgia – living there with a Georgian family, operating the food cart, importing and distributing authentic Georgian spices – we know there is still so much more to learn and explore. Khachapuri and Saperavi are truly just the tip of the iceberg.

So, our plan is an ambitious one: we’ll travel to nearly every region, spending time with passionate home cooks, professional chefs, family winemakers and commercial wine producers. We’ll learn about the flavors and techniques that define Georgian food and wine. And, equally important to us, we’ll use this site to share our experiences with you.

We couldn’t be more excited (or feel any luckier, really) about this adventure that’s ahead of us.  We hope you’ll comment / tweet / ‘gram / snap at us while we’re traveling, since we love hearing from you.  If you don’t want to miss anything here, sign up to receive our posts via email on the upper right hand side of the page.

Thank you so much for following along!