In a shadow-dappled garden just behind the faded art-nouveau former Soviet Writers’ House, Tekuna Gachechiladze is fomenting a revolution. Here in Tbilisi, food is invariably served with almost liturgical traditionalism: babushkas knead the dough, wash the herbs, peel the aubergines; bearded bebias grill meats, marinated in spicy adjika or sour-plum tkemali sauces. Women serve; men toast and down wine in one gulp from the horns of rams. Cheese sizzles in butter; khinkali dumplings burst with the flavours of caraway and the blended juices of pork and beef.
But at Café Littera, located among the flaking mansions of Tbilisi’s Sololaki district, Gachechiladze is transforming the Georgian supra (feast), elevating the garlic-rich, herby Caucasian cuisine into something far lighter. Here, as at her cooking-school-cum-restaurant Culinarium, Gachechiladze reimagines traditional chakapuli, lamb swimming in a stew of sour plums and tarragon, as an airy Black Sea mussel dish. The country’s ubiquitous river trout, usually fried with pomegranate, she serves as a tartare, made piquant with adjika.
“Georgians hate me,” Gachechiladze laughs, recalling how staff members walked out rather than make bazhe – a creamy nut sauce served with cold chicken – with almonds instead of the customary walnuts. But every night, Littera is booked solid: a mixture of expats and well-heeled members of Tbilisi’s rebellious intelligentsia.
For all her innovation, Gachechiladze’s approach to food is hardly unprecedented. After all, Georgian food is a fusion in itself: a blend of Silk Road influences from the highlanders of the Caucasus mountains, from China (khinkali are not so far from dim sum), Central Asia and Russia. Tbilisi has long been the cultural capital of the Caucasus.
Even today, Tbilisi’s food is at its best when it embraces this aromatic eclecticism. At Black Lion, I sit on embroidered carpets, flung over divans, in a fire-lit room, taking spoonfuls from an antipasto board of reconfigured Georgian classics: spinach and beetroot pkhali, where vegetables are pulverised to creaminess with walnuts, raw garlic, coriander, dill and other herbs, served not with hearty tone bread but with lightly crispy Armenian lavash. At Sofia Melnikova’s Fantastic Duqan – named after the traditional Georgian term for a tavern – I suck the broth from earthy khinkali (rumour has it that an old woman has been dragooned from the mountains just to fold the accordion-like dumpling dough, but I have never seen her).
Across the old town, at Café Gabriadze, a wonderland owned by the impresario of Tbilisi puppet theatre, traditional lobio – coriander-fragrant red beans long-simmered in a traditional clay pot – is perfumed with marigold and otskhisuneli: fenugreek, once known as “foreigner spice”, is now part of nearly every Georgian dish.
But some of Tbilisi’s best culinary moments are its simplest. In a barely marked bakery under the seminary on Sioni Street, just across from the 13th-century cathedral, I stand in line with Orthodox priests to buy my daily tone bread: dough thrown against the heated walls of a circular oven, along with khachapuri: salty cheese melting between crispy layers of fresh bread. Down the road, the underpass that traverses Baratashvili Street doubles as a bazroba (bazaar): the stalls are fragrant with garlicky salt from the mountains of Svaneti, ripe peaches, hanging bunches of the cylindrical grape-juice-and-flour confection known as churchkhela. Tkemali and adjika are sold in repurposed Coca-Cola bottles.
Alongside them, of course, homemade wine – a rich amber colour, aged in earthenware qvevri and sold out of water coolers. It’s less than a pound a bottle – and it’s wonderful.
If you can’t make it to Tbilisi, try its food here:
New York: Oda House, 76 Avenue B, 10009
London: Little Georgia, 87 Goldsmiths Row, E2
Paris: Pirosmani, 6 Rue Boutebrie, 75005