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!)  

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.

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.

Sashualo

This food isn’t fancy or refined. It’s not even distinctly Georgian. Nope, no adjika here. But when in Georgia, I sometimes crave shaurma like nothing else.

Shaurma — known in other parts of the world as döner, shawarma, gyros — is meat (usually chicken or lamb over here) layered on a vertical spit and grilled for a long period of time. The charred pieces are sliced off the spit and wrapped up in lavash (a very thin, tortilla-like sheet of bread) with tomatoes, onions, spicy pickled peppers and some combination of “secret sauces” — usually ketchup and mayo.

There are a million shaurma stands over here, and frankly, most of them aren’t very good. It’s easy to overcook the meat until it’s dry and tough. Oftentimes the meat-to-bread ratio is way off. And a few of those pickled peppers go a long way.

Usually there’s a small mob of people hovering around the window, making it near impossible to figure out who has ordered and who hasn’t. There is no line. Sometimes it can take forever to get your food, or a guy who ordered 10 minutes after you will somehow get his four shaurmas before you get your one. And with a few of the stands I’ve been to, you probably don’t want to spend too much time looking around at conditions inside the cart.

The experience is inconsistent. But when you get a good one — look out. So what’s a guy to do?

Enter MacShaurma.

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They’ve fixed everything that’s wrong with the shaurma experience. You know where to order and you know where to pick up. Service is fast. You get a number. It’s clean. It’s delicious.

And it’s HUGE. My sashualo (normal/regular – საშუალო) shawarma is easily 14″ long, all for about four American dollars. (Yes, that means there’s a bigger one.)

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I haven’t talked to any Georgians yet about what they think of the place, but it’s busy every time I go past and it looks like they’ve got about 88,000 fans on Facebook. Sure, you give up some of the charm of the stereotypical “street food experience” for something systematized, sterile and more than a little reminiscent of a certain fast food joint.

Whatever. I think I hear my number.

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Shetsdoma

Sometimes you learn new Georgian words from a street sign, a menu or in conversation. Other times you look them up. Such as “shetsdoma” (შეცდომა), which means “mistake.”

It’s a good word to learn when you’ve locked yourself out of your apartment and have to call your landlord, who then drives three hours one way to let you in and explain – again – how to properly operate the multiple doors and locks for which there are a full ring of keys.

  
Luckily, our landlord is a friend, and also one of the nicest men in Georgia.

It was an honest mistake to close the inner of two solid metal doors behind us as we met and talked with our neighbor for the first time, mindlessly pulling on the doorknob while putting our complete concentration into communication.

It’s a good example of the effort it sometimes takes to do simple things while traveling or living abroad. This isn’t unique to Georgia or to us, I’m certain. But simple things aren’t always… well, simple.

Like knowing which minibus (marshrutka) to hop on as you try to read the signs in the window:

  

Or which button to push to get to your floor on the elevator:

  
Or understanding why the bus zoomed past you while you were standing at the bus stop:

  

Dozens of things happen every day that require attention and concentration, things that we take for granted in the States.

But that’s what makes living abroad an adventure. It’s a cycle of constant learning, continuous improvement. These experiences become badges of honor, stories of triumph over adversity. They separate the tourists from those trying to assimilate. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Which is a good thing, because I can’t.

Bazari

We visited a bazaar (ბაზარი) this week, where you can buy pretty much everything you’d ever need – from meat and produce to clothes, toothbrushes and shower curtains.  A few pictures: 

  
 
           

       

We came home with a bathroom mirror, a kitchen knife, black tights, an extension cord and adaptor, dry adjika, adjika paste, cucumbers and a small travel bag. Not bad!

Gobi

In Georgian, the word for “friend” is megobari, which is derived from gobi, the word for a large bowl. As in: when we sit together and eat from this large bowl together, we are of course friends. Lovely sentiment.

Yesterday we did that very thing, twice, with friends both old and new. And while we don’t intend this blog to be “look what we ate today” or a catalog of restaurant reviews, I do think it’s worth noting how the restaurant “scene” in Tbilisi has evolved so much from our first visits here only six years ago.

It has never been hard to find traditional Georgian food in Tbilisi. Large spaces decorated as “old Georgia” feed the tourists and non-descript hole-in-the-walls cater to the locals. Both serve essentially the same menu. Today there are restaurants and cafes seemingly popping up all over Old Town, several of which are taking Georgian cuisine far beyond simple khinkali and khachapuri.

We’ve been to some of them last year and are looking forward to returning (Azarphesha, Ghvino Underground), some are already on our  must-try list (Ezo, Culinarium) and some, such as yesterday’s lunch and dinner destinations, came as completely pleasant surprises.

The first, Barbarestan, is a cozy and warmly decorated place serving dishes from the ancient cookbook of Barbara Jorjadze, a 19th century Georgian duchess, feminist and, if yesterday’s lunch was any indication, amazing cook.

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We sat in the marani (wine cellar) and feasted on dishes that were traditional yet innovative, built on combinations of flavors not often found in Georgian restaurants I’ve been to: pumpkin croquettes, beet salad marinated in tkemali (Georgia’s famous sour plum sauce), strong cheeses made in nearby villages, eggplant stewed in satsivi walnut sauce spiked with cloves & nutmeg, which is usually served with chicken. Lazuri khachapuri, served “open-faced” without a top crust. And this gobi that included bazhe made with almonds instead of walnuts, roasted onions with herbs, and nadugi “cheese” made with pumpkin:

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After all of that — plus more, and plenty of saperavi red wine — we had only a few hours to recover for dinner at Leila’s, a new vegetarian/vegan cafe in Old Town. 

There are maybe only 10 tables, sitting under one of the most ornate ceilings I’ve ever seen (which I’m told is original to the building).

  
The menu featured vegetarian renditions of popular Georgian dishes (like kharcho, traditionally a beef soup) as well as new creations such as this, which I was curious about but opted for the lobio bean stew instead:

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We ended the night with this gobi of traditional Georgian appetizers: mchadi cornmeal cakes, pickled vegetables, spinach pkhali, badrijani and assorted cheeses, including an addictively pungent one made from sheep’s milk:

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It was a great day of eating, reconnecting with old friends, making new ones and stoking our fire of everything we love about Georgian food and hospitality. 

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. 🙂

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!