Dining at Tbilisi

Warmth, wine and spice - a taste of Georgia in the 1st District

One thing I’ve learned is that political strife is one thing, and food is something else. In fact, the August conflict in Georgia may have sparked my thirst (and hunger) for more insight into this small country in the Caucasus. That hunger compelled me to the doors of Tiflis in the 1st District, which I had passed but never tried. Such is the power of the media. So making my way through the maze of cobblestone streets behind Stephansdom, I hoped to satisfy my intellectual – as well as my actual – appetite.

Advertised by little more than a humble sign and a small black board announcing the specials, Tiflis is easily overlooked – partially because the sign advertises La Creperie, an entirely different kind of cuisine.  After being seated, my puzzlement was compounded by the thick, mock leather menu,with French cuisine on one side, in flowing cursive, and rustic Georgian on the other. The riddle was soon solved by the Russian waiter explaining that Tiflis’s evil French twin cohabitates the building with the Georgian eatery on Gruenangergasse.  Or rather, the new owners merged their new concept with the old, to create a unique dining experience.

Regardless, I tried to focus on what I had come for. But deciding what to order from an unfamiliar ethnic menu is like walking through a strange city with no map. It’s thrilling, but can make one very indecisive – even without third party interference like the French calligraphy.  So I was more than happy that my Russian and Ukrainian companions were willing to take me on a cultural tour, even if it wasn’t quite their own. I got to sit in the passenger seat and take in the warm maroon-red interior while they mulled over the list.
Our room was adjacent to an equal but opposite space decorated in blue, studded in gold and separated by a short wall with a crackling fire place in the corner. Brown leather couches and chairs hugged the white-clad tables, each adorned with a single white candle.  Somehow we had ended up in the French part of the place; the front room we had passed through could have been a Georgian living room: Tsarist brick, dark wood and Georgian knick-knacks (a collection of antique irons, among other things) gave way via a narrow passage to our imperial dining hall, emphasizing the chameleon-like essence of the restaurant. Though ambiguous, the resolute warmth made the contrast trivial.

And with that in mind, the appetizers arrived. A dish of tomato and onion salad smothered in parsley; an assortment of what looked like bread spreads (though no bread); and Hatschapuri – crepes layered with soft white cheese.  The simple salad proved to be sumptuous. The thick layer of parsley gave it a kick and the vinaigrette dressing was finished with a nutty, paprika spice that made my mouth water even while eating it. After polishing off the first salad and ordering two more, my spoon headed for the spreads: one a bean puree, one with minced red beets and walnuts, one with green beans and walnuts and finally, one with spinach and (yes) crushed walnuts – all decorated with pomegranate. The hearty concoctions cooled my taste buds excited by the salad, and I decided to take it easy before the main course arrived.

I stole a peak at the menu to see exactly what had been ordered on my behalf: a lamb spies called Schaschlik accompanied by potatoes and Tkemali, a traditional Georgian plumb sauce.  Typed below each dish on the menu was a drink recommendation; for Schaschlik, the suggestion was a triple vodka. Ah, the Eastern European ways… Announcing this detail to my companions resulted in a string of anecdotes about Georgian dinners they had attended where toasts were made at every opportunity.  A triple vodka seemed a bit much with an entrée, so I stuck with the red wine, dubbed Akhascheni, a Georgian label with a mild body and slightly sweet after taste.

Which went beautifully with the lamb. I was not asked to give a temperature for the meat, so it wasn’t still baa-ing as I prefer, but it was still tender. Otherwise, it was a standard, hearty meal, served with ordinary fried potato wedges. The Tkemali, however, was tangy and piquant, which re-excited my taste buds after the salad and brought an exotic edge to the dish. My companion had ordered Kutscmatchi, chicken innards served with the all-pervading walnuts and herbs (a pleasant combination even for someone who despises the consistency of liver) served in a thick wrought iron pot. My Ukrainian companion had opted for an eggplant stew with onion, paprika and again the mysterious “Georgian spices,” served in a similar wrought-iron vessel. Still struggling after the appetizer extravaganza, we ate in silence, doing our best not to look stuffed.

After (almost) finishing the Schaschlik and failing to fit the last of the tomato salad down with the lamb, the dining room had emptied. The owner had stopped by to chat, the fire place crackled and true warmth of the place could be felt. My friends were in an animated conversation with the waiter while he served us the third round of Tschatscha , a strong, herby liquor that was helping to digest the feast. That round led to another… and another.

The night grew later, the restaurant quieter, and the Russian-Ukrainian trio livelier with each Tschatscha. They carried on in Russian and I felt I had come a tiny bit closer to understanding the broader Eastern European culture – even though I didn’t understand a word they were saying.

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