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!)  

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.

Racha

Racha (რაჭა) is a region that you don’t hear much about, comparatively speaking. Kakheti has wine, Samegrelo has spicy food, Adjara has great beaches. But Racha? More off the beaten path.  But I have been intrigued for years, mostly – and I admit this is quite silly of me – because my favorite traditional dance comes from Racha.

Feel free to play this video of the Racha song and dance (with a modern twist, although I will say exposed midriffs are incredibly rare here) as you scroll through some of my favorite scenes from our trip there last week.

One of our first stops, Shaori Lake, was stunning, with the clear blue water, vibrant green trees and bright blue sky.
We walked around the lake for a long time; this was taken from the path circling the lake.
We were so happy here that we wanted to frolic. So we did.
 
The 11th century Nikortsminda Cathderal was covered in frescos, some original! I didn’t feel it was appropriate to take pictures inside so you will have to take my word for it.
We spent more than two hours on a rough road to visit Shovi and drink its naturally bubbly mineral water.
The drive to Shovi was beautiful. The town itself was sadly deserted. While the town does get some summer visitors, it is incredibly hard to reach since the 2008 war. Most people came via South Ossetia, making it a few hours’ trip from Tbilisi. Now that area is controlled by Russian border gaurds and the town – and many would say, Racha as a whole – has suffered.
Since there was literally no food for purchase to and from Shovi, this might have been our favorite sight of the day – shkmeruli, or roasted chicken with milk and lots of garlic – since we were famished by the time we came down the mountain.

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).

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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.