Issue 2, 2016. April-May

   

THE RISE OF BOUTIQUE-STYLE EATING IN TBILISI

Innovative cafes are making waves in Tbilisi, turning the traditional Georgian supra [feast] into a brand new experience.

Helena Bedwell

Those who love Georgian food have been saying for many years that the system of layers upon layers of plates of food on the table is nothing but a holdover from the Soviet style of eating. During those repressive times, the Soviets realized that nothing prolonged their rule more than breaking the deep roots and social traditions of food and drink.

No one knows how many local recipes, traditions, utensils and cooking habits were lost. Well, it's time now to revive those traditions.

A 19th-Century Georgian Feminist

Levan Qoqiashvili, the founder and co-owner of Gastronaut, was walking around with his wife at the Dry Bridge flea market, when suddenly he came across a cookbook - originally from 1874, and reprinted in 1914.

The book was exactly what Levan was looking for: a perfect restaurant food idea based on the recipes of Barbare Eristavi-Jorjadze, a woman known for her fierce stand on feminism and a great writer.

"Foreigners and locals love this food, it's nothing they have ever tasted before and it's all Georgian recipes," Levan tells me in his cozy little restaurant while passing a plate of baked pumpkin balls, amazing caramelized onions, and walnut bread and dips. All were made following Barbare's cooking advice. The menu is something exciting for the connoisseur, especially eggplant in walnut sauce, and authentic Georgian desserts, like wine sauce cheesecake and walnuts.

"And, of course, wine goes perfect with our menu; our selection is unprecedented," his wife adds. "Qvevri wines are the most exquisite; I - and many others - have endorsed this wine bottling factory for many years."

Levan is a firm advocate of continuing to learn; he says that those entrepreneurs, restaurateurs and chefs who are not afraid of increasing their culinary knowledge have all achieved success.

He shows me the list of online recommended Georgian restaurants, some of which I have never heard of before. "All these people did not fear something new and made changes," he said.

Getting the word out about these new cafes is easier thanks to food selfies and social media: So far Barbarestan (meaning "at Barbares"), Barbare and other restaurants like it are advertised by word of mouth, with the added power of social media sites such as TripAdvisor, Foursquare, and Facebook.

Another cafe looking to reestablish the roots of Georgian cuisine is Azarphesha.

Its founder, John Wurdeman, is almost a household name in Tbilisi these days.

A cheerful American who came to Georgia in the 90s and decided to stay and take part in the country's 8,000- year -old wine-making tradition, he is now working on the combination of wine and food.

"You can't have these two separately in Georgia; they complement each other here," he said in an interview at Azarphesha, while presenting me with another amazing menu, flooded with mouth-watering recipes and never-before-heard-of dishes that, of course, are all authentically Georgian.

John is a big lover of Georgian food and uses organic ingredients. His business buys local and uses sunflower oil made in the countryside, which I could taste while enjoying the sautéed green peppers. A bite brought back to the tastes I remember from the oil used in my youth.

Azarphesha, just like Barbarestan, is never short of customers. An English-speaking wine advisor explains to new customers, who also end up here by word of mouth or TripAdvisor or by a recommended luxury trip expert, which wine is the best for their choice of food. The wine choice is excellent and comprehensive.

Barbarestan, Azarphesha, Pil Pili are an addition to one of Tbilisi's most famous restaurants - Black Lion (Shavi Lomi). A cozy, underground place, it leads the list of favorite places to visit in Tbilisi. Local chef here, Meriko Gubeladze, was one of the first champions of improving the taste of old, authentic Georgian flavors.

I heard from several people in Tbilisi that Georgians are not very amused with the size of some of the boutique-style restaurant dishes. I mean who would want to nibble on fried chicken in garlic? Or khachapuri?

New Opportunities, New Responsibilities

Professor Dali Tsatava, a wonderful recipe keeper and cook, agrees that Georgia needs to move in a new direction when it comes to food, but it should take care not to lose its originality and unique taste.

That includes the size of the portions, too. "The world is becoming very united and globalized these days and people are seeking new flavors. That's where we come into the picture: we have traditions, we have culture, we have authentic food and if we lose it, no one will come to visit," she said.

Tsatava thinks that restaurateurs and some chefs do whatever they like with the Georgian food, because there are no united standards for it yet.

She wants Georgia follow the examples of the French, Japanese, Chinese, Mexicans and Italians and set standards for its cuisine.

Fans of traditional Georgian fare should not worry: the boutique restaurants also serve the country's trademark khinkali.

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