Once upon a time I lived in Tbilisi the capital of Georgia and it remains my favourite place in the world. It’s a city of carved wooden balustrades and staircases that lead to balconies that wrap around hidden courtyards.
There is a mountain at its back, an oligarch’s glass palace on a ridge; the river curves beneath ancient cliffs. There is no lunchtime or dinner time but the tables are always full and the wine always flows; Georgia is the oldest viticulture in the world. It is the city of bumping into friends, unexpected hairpin adventures; revolutions and heartbreak. City of stories. Once, many years ago, in Tbilisi, someone gave me a thousand red roses.
I try to go back once a year but it doesn’t always happen. When I begin to miss it too much I try to assuage my longing at a Georgian restaurant. Over the past decade or so several have opened in London, some of them desultory ethnic canteen, some of them cafés with a Russian inflection on the menu (beetroot soup, mayonnaise salads, cutlets), some with fine dining aspirations, can be delicious, but not quite authentic enough to fix my Tbilisi itch.
Tom DeWaal and his wife Georgina are old friends and old Caucasus hands and one Monday night we decided we should get together and eat Georgian. I found, via the internet, Mimino, a place unknown to us. The address was off Ken High Street, there was a left-over green tiled pagoda over the entrance and we walked down into a windowless basement dining room. The room was entirely empty. The decor recalled a Wes Anderson movie; walls painted hospital green with accents of pine cladding, exposed brick and mirror. There were a few Georgian folk paintings on the wall, a string of plastic grapes and a pair of antlers. We did not have high expectations.
‘Some people spend money on decor,’ said Zaur the owner, manager, maître d’ and waiter, ‘but it’s the food on the table that’s important.’ As Tom and Georgia and I perused the laminated menu, wondering uncertainly: was this going to be ghastly? — Georgian hospitality took over. Zaur brought us a glass of vodka and slices of dense black caraway bread ‘on the house, just to get you started.’ We got chatting, Zauri was from Batumi on the Black Sea coast and had opened the restaurant ten years ago because his Georgian and Russian friends in London kept badgering him: wouldn’t it be nice to have somewhere to go and eat well!
He advised us that the menu was in flux. Tkemali, the Georgian plum sauce that is spiked with garlic and dill and coriander and goes so well with barbecued pork (with everything, actually), was unavailable, ‘you can’t get the right sour plums,’ Zaur lamented. ‘They should be the small green sour plums, otherwise the sauce is sweet and its not right.’ We discussed the wine, always a long and complex conversation in Georgia, where in some places they still make it in the same way they eight thousand years ago, by burying grape juice in amphorae. ‘There are four or five hundred varieties of grape in Georgia did you know?’ Zaur told us. Tom chose a red Napareuli.
The Georgian alphabet has thirty six curlicued letters; pronouncing the dishes is not easy. The ajapsandali was a warmly slipper soft ratatouille mulch of slow cooked aubergines, onions and peppers. The classic Georgian salad of cucumber, red onion and tomatoes was fine but it missed real Georgian summer tomatoes which, once tasted, are never forgotten. The bazhe, a dish of chicken pieces drowned in a walnut sauce had the authentic and very specific taste that comes from the Georgian spice mix called khmeli suneli, pungent with cumin, fenugreek, cinnamon, marjoram, saffron, bay and a mysterious ‘yellow flower’ spice that is sometimes translated as marigold, but it’s not exactly marigold.
The mtsvadi, barbecued pork, is at its very best when is grilled at a roadside brazier, and you pull the meat off the skewer with chunks of lavash flat bread and eat it with your fingers. Here it was covered in its traditional garnish of sliced onion and pomegranate seeds and we cut it up with our knives and forks and reminisced about picnics in the high Caucasus mountains. We ate khadjapuri, a cheese stuffed pastry-bread circle that comes in different regional varieties. Zaur said he used a mix of mozzarella and feta, which was a good salty approximation of the Georgian sulguni, which you can only get in Britain as a squeaky bland imitation made in Germany. Tom said, ‘It’s a bit floppy; it has no back bone’ as he slurped a melting cheesy wedge. But khachapuri has many regional permutations; there’s no standard, and I thought it was yummy.
At length the khinkali arrived. We were apprehensive. Khinkali is the Georgian national dish. They are top knot dumplings filled with a mixture of ground beef and pork, lightly spiced and herbed. When you bite into them, carefully holding one hot edge in your fingers, there is what Tom describes as ‘the khinkali explosion’ as hot broth gushes into your mouth and dribbles down your forearms.
‘I have never eaten decent khinkali outside of Georgia,’ I said. ‘They are almost always frozen.’
‘I never really understood the attraction of khinkali Georgina admitted. ‘I always found them heavy.’
‘I know,’ I agreed. ‘The Georgian macho thing is to order twenty, but I could only ever eat three or four.’
Steam rose from the circle of dumplings, we picked them up by their noses and gently bit into their pleated flanks. Rich golden broth flowed over my tongue with a warming thwack of spice and heat. The meat inside was soft and light, the dough was thin.
‘That is a kinkhali!’ I pronounced, grinning.
‘It’s spicy. It’s really good.’ said Tom.
‘That might be the best kinkhali I’ve ever had,’ said Georgina.
Zaur was pleased. ‘It’s because we have machines to roll the dough thinner,’ he explained. Khinkali in Georgia are usually rolled out by hand by heavy set women with strong forearms and rolling pins. There was still no one else in the restaurant but now all the formal barriers between restaurateur and client had broken down in the familiar. I insisted on going into the kitchen to thank the lady who had made such excellent khinkali. Gaia was very shy and came from the region of Tusheti in the mountains where they have a strong tradition of khinkali; she had only been in London a year and didn’t speak any English.
‘Gamar jobat’ we said in Georgian as we ordered more.
‘Can we watch her make them?’ I asked Zaur, when we had sat back down at the table.
‘Even better,’ he replied, ‘you can watch her from right here!’ And he turned around his surveillance camera screen so that we could watch Gaia in the kitchen, as she stirred the ground meat and spices together with a little water to loosen and moisten, rolled circles of dough through a pasta machine and then folded, with elegant practiced fingers, exactly twelve pleats in each dumpling. Sitting in a deserted basement restaurant watching TV around the dinner table was a little surreal but unexpectedly delightful, a very Georgian happenstance of serendipity and surprise.