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.


 

Did you know that Kargi Gogo has the largest selection of Georgian spices in the United States? From hard-to-find essentials like blue fenugreek and crushed marigold flowers, to flavorful seasonings like adjika and Svanetian salt, to ready-to-cook mixes & recipes like khinkali and lobio, our spices are 100% authentic, only the finest quality and FDA-approved. Shop now at kargigogo.com/spices. (Bulk sizes also available for restaurants — contact us for details!)  

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Kerdzebi, Part 1

Earlier this week we had the pleasure of spending a couple of days with the ladies of the Sagarejo Municipality Youth House.

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Because of our Peace Corps experience, McKinze and I have been to a lot of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) all over Georgia and have seen all different levels of activity. It’s great to see this Youth House experiencing so much success!

You could see the pride in the faces of the women as they told us about their various projects and accolades: young people learning how to design and code apps for mobile devices, a successful youth camp just wrapping up and another one in the works, paintings earning a spot in a Tbilisi gallery, young men learning to play the panduri, and even a visit from the US Ambassador. გილოცავთ, ყველას.

But it was food that brought us to their organization on this trip. For two whole days, these generous ladies rolled out the red carpet and opened their kitchen to us, teaching us how to make a variety of their favorite Georgian kerdzebi (კერძები – dishes).

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Some of the dishes we made with them were fairly new to us. Others, like khachapuri and khinkali, we know quite well but still learned how these women made it. What was important to them and why. Plus, we learned how to fold khinkali in “tevzis pormashi,” i.e. in the shape of a fish!

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It’s so interesting to see how people make the same food in slightly different ways: because that’s the way it’s done in their region, or that’s the way they were taught, or that’s simply what they like. Some things — like how many fresh herbs to put in the soup — are open to interpretation. Others — like which side of the grape leaf is on the outside of the tolma — are not.

What a great experience — exactly the kind this trip of ours is all about. We can’t thank the ladies in Sagarejo enough!

Here, in no particular order, are a few pics of what we made over those two days, with more to come in the next post.

Mtsvadi (მწვადი)
This classic Georgian dish is all about the meat — in this case, pork. The meat is first seasoned liberally with salt (and other spices, if you so desire), then skewered onto long spears.

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A fire is made from wood and dried grapevines, traditionally on the ground, until it has burned down to white-hot embers.

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Then the skewers are placed over the make-shift grill until crispy on the outside and tender & juicy on the inside.

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A piece of bread is used to pull the finished chunks of meat off the spears into a bowl filled with sliced onions.

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Toss it all together and enjoy. A little bit of tkemali sour plum sauce is great on the side. Our hosts also liked a sweet pomegranate syrup.

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(Matsoni Soup) მაწონის სუპი
You may recall that this is a favorite of ours, and our former host mom in Akhaltsikhe makes a killer version from the southern region of Samtskhe-Javakheti (as documented in this post). Well, the women in Sagarejo had seen McKinze express her love for this soup on an old TV segment from our food cart days, and couldn’t wait to teach her their version from Eastern Georgia.

It started with making matsoni, not unlike plain yogurt in the States, but with a bit more sourness and “tang.” You simply put a spoonful of existing matsoni in a jar of warm unpasteurized/un-homogenized milk, wrap in towels, and a few hours later you’re holding a brand new jar of matsoni with a big smile on your face.

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Into the jar go a few eggs and some salt.

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For the base of the soup, we used white onion, green onion, a little garlic, a little water — and a bunch of butter.

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After awhile, we added some rice and water…

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…and stirred, stirred, stirred, until the rice was cooked.

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Into the pot goes the matsoni and egg mixture…

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…freshly chopped dill and green onions…

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…and how about some more butter.

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A few minutes later and it’s ready to go. Skip the spoon and just grab a mug.

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Khinkali (ხინკალი)
McKinze and I calculated that during our time in the food cart, we rolled around 100,000 of these famously juicy dumplings. One hundred thousand. Needless to say, we think we know our way around these things pretty well.

Still, there’s a difference between using mixers, dough sheeters and other equipment to crank out khinkali in a restaurant setting and making them the way they’ve been made for centuries: entirely by hand. Starting, of course, with the dough.

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After being mixed, kneaded and rolled out by hand, the dough — much softer and wetter than “restaurant style” dough — is cut into rounds with the top of a nearby juice glass.

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The rounds are then further rolled out into thin circles with a rolling pin — or an empty glass bottle.

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At last the meat mixture is spooned onto each circle and rolled up. This meat was a simple mix of fatty ground pork, salt, diced onions, garlic and cilantro. Not much water was added because there was enough fat in the meat to create the bulk of the “juice” as it cooked.

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Into the pot of water they go…

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At the dinner table there are usually plenty of leftover khinkali. Those are often sent back to be fried up in a little bit of oil or butter. You lose the juiciness but get crispiness instead.

 

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In addition to the “fish shaped” khinkali, we also learned first-hand how to roll these pretty awesome “double decker” khinkali, which we first saw on a YouTube video that has been making the rounds. Cool!

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Part two of our trip coming tomorrow…

Temi

Over the holiday season last year we sold Georgian Christmas ornaments made from felt – khinkali, qvevris, churchkela, wine bottles, wine pitchers and even tonis puri (Georgian bread).

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Such a cute little khinkali!

These ornaments were handmade by the men and women of Art Koda – a social enterprise working with families that were displaced during the 2008 war with Russia.  These resettled families, originally from South Ossetia, now live in the former military base just outside the small town of Koda, a 40-minute drive from Tbilisi.

Art Koda works to teach new skills and provide new sources of income for these displaced residents.  Perhaps more importantly, it offers a place and reason for people to come together and build relationships in their new community (temi – თემი).  Considering that these families had been living in South Ossetia for generations, starting over in a new place with new people takes some real courage.

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Handmade finger puppets

We attended a workshop at Art Koda to make our own felt ornaments, and learned that they were both easy and hard to make:  easy, in that all you do is repeatedly poke the felt with a needle until it makes the desired shape; and hard, in that it takes some time and skill to turn a big piece of felt into something that resembles, in our cases, a khinkali and a wine pitcher.

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The beginnings of my khinkali
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Sean’s wine pitcher taking shape, with his model in the background
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Finished products! Our teachers were very impressed with Sean.

We also received a tour of the Koda settlement and were happy to see the residents beginning to put down roots in their new town.

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Bee hives behind an apartment building
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Co-op gardens for residents

Our thanks to Art Koda for partnering with us and the Koda community for inviting us to visit (and the Peace Corps volunteer that organized it all – thanks Kim!).  We loved meeting you!

 

 

Arrival

In our first 12 hours in Georgia, we’ve had khachapuri, tomato & cucumber salad with walnut sauce, lobiani, khinkali, mtsvadi and tarragon soda. Not a bad start.

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We’ve arrived, and it feels so good to be here. We’re comfortably situated in a nice apartment in the western part of Tbilisi, with a beautiful panoramic view of the city. As I write this, a tea kettle bubbles on the stove, sun streams through the kitchen window and McKinze is on the phone, making plans for our first out-of-the-city excursion this weekend.

Thanks for following. 🙂