Russia may have had its issues with Georgia over the centuries, but rarely with Georgian food, many of the most popular restaurants in Moscow hailing from the Caucasus. In the Soviet time Georgia was the supreme provider of fruit and vegetables for the whole Empire: aubergines, citrus fruit, peppers and walnuts all grew here, and so did herbs like saffron, basil and coriander, which are used to flavour their powerful dishes. Many people know Khinkali, the little crimped dumplings full of meat, excellent steamed or fried, which are shaped with a little handle and are so full of juicy meat they say there is an art to eating them without getting splashed. There’s also Khachapuri, the flat bread stuffed with Sulguni cheese which, accompanied by a dish of Ajika – a fiery sauce stuffed with garlic, tomatoes, and chilli peppers – makes a meal on its own.
Georgians are known to love their food and drink, and this is a proper cuisine, spicy, herby and a bracing clash of sweet and savoury: sauces for meat made with walnuts and pomegranate juice, with plums, herbs and garlic, one of which – the Culinaria guide tells me – made such a hit with visiting Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev he declared even steel nails could taste good in it. With the increasing number of Russians in London, Georgian restaurants seem to be on the rise, a good half dozen around the capital now open. I went to one of them – Tbilisi on the Holloway Road – to try it for myself.
The first thing to say about Tbilisi – one of the oldest Georgian restaurants in London – is that the décor is just right. There are no cold white walls, fishtank windows or miserable designer floorboards: instead the colour design of yellow and dark red is cosy, the lighting scheme intimate, and the whole place feels a snug retreat from the world outside. Service is slightly inattentive but friendly when you’re in their beam, and the menu is just extensive enough to offer choice without dizzying you. There are a lot of very healthy sounding starters(around the £5 mark), like Badrijani (pan fried aubergines with walnuts and onion pate) and Carrot Phali (steamed carrots with crushed walnuts, spices and white wine) – in fact, although there are plentiful meat dishes, one can imagine this being the perfect place for vegetarians in search of something new. The Khachapuri here is a joy – flat as a pancake, warm, moist and oozing ricotta-like cheese: the kind of thing you are still thinking about days later. A lot of Georgian whites and reds (£20-35) are offered on the wine list – including the famous Khvanchkara, a fruity, oaky semi-sweet red drunk by Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill at Yalta, and which receives high praise.
But onto the mains, which are priced around £10 and are mostly meat. There is the walnutty Chicken Satsivi, served with ghomi, a rice and cornflower puree, and dishes like Chakapuli (lamb in tarragon, green herbs and white wine) and the charmingly named Tsitsila (chicken with plums). I plump for Chanaki, a lamb and aubergine stew – it’s flavoursome and a deep red colour, though not as spicy as one hoped. But it comes with good warm bread and a little dish of salad which looks crisp and freshly washed: Georgian food feels healthy, and when a few dishes are laid out on the table, is a colourful feast for the eyes as well. For dessert I have the baked apple with honey, walnuts and yogurt – reminiscent in flavour of our own baked apple, but an exotic take on it, and a nice light end to the meal.
I will definitely be going back to this restaurant, and probably more than once: it’s the perfect place to meet up with people, and at around £25 for three courses, will frighten no one. The menu is so vivid you want to try everything, and there are genuinely new tastes in the cuisine. But most importantly, Tbilisi Restaurant is just a warm and relaxing place to be – perhaps like the Georgian capital itself. At any rate, it’s highly recommended. ______________________________________________________________________________
Tbilisi Restaurant, 91 Holloway Road, London N7 8LT (near Highbury and Islington Tube). Tel: 0207-607 2536. www.tbilisi-restaurant.co.uk. Open 7 days a week, 6pm – 11pm.