Issue 4, 2013. August-September

   

A MAGICIAN IN THE KITCHEN: MERIKO GUBELADZE TAKES ON TRADITIONAL GEORGIAN CUISINE

Helene Bedwell

One Ghobi, Chadukebi and Green Elarji Please...

Everyone who admires Georgian cuisine also knows just how monotonous it can become after a while! Have you ever noticed, just when you are just about to order a meal in your regular restaurant, the wait staff simply brings you and your friends one menu for all, assuming that everyone knows what to order: khachapuri, khinkali, peasant-style green salad, cheese rolls, and garlic-fried chicken?

Well, here is some good news for those who are in Georgia and are seeking something different, something unusual and unique: Shavi Lomi (The Black Lion).

This is a place where diners can exercise their taste buds with new delicacies, according to Meriko Gubeladze, The Black Lion's renowned chef and Georgian television personality.

I visited her restaurant some time ago, when a friend suggested trying something different from the famous — and famously traditional — riverside restaurants and modern Chardin eateries. The only real problem we had is that we couldn't find the place! Meriko admitted that The Black Lion is not well advertised, but insisted that is not because she's trying to keep it a secret.

She offered me some samples from the menu in her restaurant, which is in the bohemian design of a basement diner that, at first glance looks more like a cellar, than an upmarket establishmen.Where a diner can enjoy what they have to offer.

Meriko was very young when she began to develop her cooking abilities, thanks to the help of her mother and grandmother.

While her first attempts at cooking were not always successful — like the time she threw an eggplant into a boiling soup pan (her mother was not pleased) — today all that has changed. She pleases her customers with such creations as khachapuri prepared quesadilla-style, with meat, mini chadukas, and almond sauce.

Meriko was twenty-three when she moved to the United States for non-food-related studies, but was shocked to discover that despite coming from such a colorful and spice-loving country like Georgia, she was still discovering more and more new tastes. Her curiosity landed her jobs in various restaurants and reignited her desire to become a chef.


She then went on to study professional cooking and kitchen management at the Vienna Tourism College.

When Meriko finally returned from America, she happily accepted a managing position at a restaurant that was very different from the usual Georgian concept. "The most difficult part was to convince the traditional cooks to use something different than all those known ingredients," Meriko said. "I was called crazy, insane, and everything under the sun, but I persisted."

Meriko's protests about Georgian food being too bland and sometimes even harmful to weak stomachs is easily understood when one tries one of her creations. She fries the corn flour for the famous Georgian cornbread, chadi, which darkens the dish and gives it a slightly lighter taste than the traditional golden-fried patties.

She uses almonds, instead of traditional hazelnuts, for the famous Bajhe sauce, another shocker for the conventional Georgian kitchen. Her ghomi is green, full of mint flavor, and simply divine when served with mouth-watering gebjhalia (sulguni and cottage cheese wraps).

Meriko said that she would love to discover more forgotten recipes from across the country: for many years Georgians were trapped by the idea that just a handful of standard recipes exist and all others were just made up or adopted from abroad.

"I categorically denounce the idea of mayonnaise usage in Georgian restaurants. We can do better than the Soviet-style salad recipes," she said.

The Black Lion, named after Niko Pirosmanishvili's eponymous painting, is one of the pioneers of the new era of Georgian food, along with Mandari and the cooking academy at the Agricultural University of Georgia, founded by Kakha Bendukidze, a former economic minister and current chairman of the Free and Agricultural Universities.

Meriko's culinary findings certainly represent the future of Georgian cuisine, something visitors and Georgians alike will miss and crave when away from Georgia.