For most of its existence, my palate has not enjoyed much exposure to the gastronomic delights from the crossroads of Asia and Europe. A recent visit to Tbilisi on Kings Highway in Gravesend, Brooklyn, however, afforded me a fine introduction to the marvelous flavors of Georgian cooking.
Simple and unassuming, this restaurant serves delicious, authentic dishes from its namesake, Georgia's capital (and largest) city. A spacious dining room, comfortable tables with white linens, walls adorned with photographs of old Tbilisi, and Georgian music playing in the background, virtually transported me to the Caucusus for my inauguration.
My feast began with Spinach Pkhali with Walnuts, a cold dish that originated in the western part of Georgia. Combining elements of a salad and a spread, this traditional starter blends finely chopped spinach and ground walnuts with fresh garlic, onion, cilantro, fenugreek, and cayenne pepper to produce a soft, spicy ball of flavor. While the garnish of pomegranate arils added appetizing contrasts of taste, texture, and color, the red onions and cilantro accentuated the flavors of the ingredients. Since I enjoyed the spinach pkhali (pronounced ხah·lee, where ხ refers to the voiceless velar fricative) with such gusto, I'm eager to sample the eggplant and bean variants on a future visit.
Next, I tried the traditional Khachapuri Imeretian (pronounced ხuh·juh·poor·ee ih·mer·ih·tyen, where ხ refers to the voiceless velar fricative), a bread stuffed with melted cheese. Round, flat, and savory, this is one of Georgia's culinary mainstays. Often described as "Georgian pizza," this khachapuri (literally, "cheese bread") hails from Imereti, a region in the center of the country. Although suluguni, the so-called "pickle cheese," is preferred for its consistency and slightly sour flavor, mozzarella can be used as a reasonable fill-in, so to speak.
On my next visit, I may try the boat-shaped Khachapuri Adjarian. This preparation, from western Georgia (near the Turkish border), features a concave vessel of dough loaded with cheese, baked with a raw egg. It certainly sounds interesting, if not dangerous.
My main course comprised boiled meat dumplings. Khinkali, with origins in Georgia's mountainous northeast regions, is considered a national dish. (The menu lists it under the rubric of "National Hot Entrées.") While a traditional ground lamb filling is used in the aforementioned mountains, a more contemporary mixture of beef and pork (the type served at Tbilisi) is more popular elsewhere. The rustic, unsubtle ingredients—salt, pepper (black and red), ground caraway seed, minced onion and cilantro—yield a meat filling that's literally bursting with flavor. The story doesn't end with the choice of protein, however.
Encasing the raw meat is a thick, doughy skin that is pleated and twisted together to form a nipple-shaped seal called a kudi ("hat") or a kuchi ("navel"). The dumplings are boiled in salt water (thus cooking the meat, and producing a flavorful broth within), and served hot. Adding coarsely ground black pepper at the table is de rigueur.
Consuming khinkali (pronounced ხing·kah·lee, where ხ refers to the voiceless velar fricative) is practically an art. Owing to the copious juices trapped inside, Khinkali must be eaten with one's hands to avoid spilling any of the precious liquid. The procedure requires holding the dumpling with both hands (using one's thumbs to support the nipple-shaped knob), taking a modest initial bite of the integument, and drawing out the broth—all without dribbling. I'm proud to report that I fared quite well my first time! Braggadocio aside, I found these aromatic, savory dumplings to be among the most delicious I've tasted.
Interestingly, the casing and the juices within—not the meat itself—are the basis of regular competitions in Georgia. While women are gauged by their skillful ability to prepare khinkali, men are evaluated by their deft ability to consume them. To wit, the more pleats a woman folds into her dumpling, the higher her rating—39 is considered ideal. And, as you may have guessed, the more dumplings a man eats sans spillage, the higher his score. (To maximize capacity for this contest of Georgian gorging, the doughy nipples are not consumed; the uneaten knots are used to keep count.) Despite all its pressure and difficulty, I think I prefer the male role.
What to drink with this sort of cooking? Although Georgian culture is entwined with its viticultural heritage, this restaurant offers no alcoholic beverages. Tbilisi does, however, allow BYOB. (What better opportunity to open the bottle of Georgian wine I'd bought on a whim a while ago?) My Khvanchkara 2005, a semi-sweet, unfiltered red wine from Racha in western Georgia, turned out to be a fortuitously fitting selection. Made with Alexandrouli and Mujuretuli grapes, its hints of berry, cherry, and pomegranate paired favorably with the spiciness of the comestibles.
Because I had taken along my own wine, I felt compelled to order another beverage of some sort. While the Zedazeni "fizzy drink" seemed appealing, the only flavor available was tarragon. Unfortunately, distinguishing this so-called "lemonade" from a carbonated mouthwash presented quite a challenge: I wasn't sure whether to swallow or to gargle. This was the only part of the meal I did not enjoy.
Notwithstanding the soft drink, Tbilisi afforded my palate a fine initiation into the flavorful realm of Georgian cooking. I found it to be a most pleasant discovery, and should highly recommend it to anyone who savors something deliciously different. Gaamos!
811 Kings Highway (between E. 8th & E. 9th Streets),
Gravesend, Brooklyn (map)