With the current travel restrictions, reading about travel would only make you even more itchy to travel. It certainly did while I was sorting out the photos from my trips to Burgundy and Tbilisi last spring. Tbilisi is one of my go-to destinations for food and I look for every opportunity to go and appease my cravings.
As I celebrated my birthday
last week with Georgian wine, I thought I’d write about the trip to refresh my memory, having hubby relieving me from child care thanks to the 4-day lockdown.
It was my first glass of wine since the delivery and I was literally ecstatic to have it with Roquefort, which I fought hard not to eat throughout my pregnancy since raw milk cheese was forbidden. Wine while breastfeeding? It’s perfectly ok as long as you drink sensibly after the last feed.
Unlike the spontaneous first trip back in 2014, I got some recommendations from a foodie friend, who is crazy about Georgian cuisine and has a local friend in Tbilisi. I tried to make it to all the places on the list but some compromises had to be made because our friends weren’t very keen on wine, and also the food as they were discovering that cilantro, which they hate, is ubiquitous in many Georgian foods.
Our first stop was Chveni, which was near our Airbnb and recommended by our host. Settled in the relaxing garden, we ordered small plates as a starter and some grilled meat for our carnivore friends, whose stomach wasn’t quite ready for foreign food.
The foods were nicely presented, twisted with international influences. The croquettes, one with Elarji(cornmeal based Georgian dish) and chicken liver with Satsivi (walnut sauce), and the other with Lobio (red bean stew) and Jonjoli sauce, were elaborate ensembles of flavours from 5-6 different Georgian dishes.
I learned, while writing this, that the person behind this place is Chef Guram, who was nominated for Gault&Millau’s Best Chef of 2019. Ah ha!
The wine I chose was Saperavi Rcheuli Qvevri 2015 by Tchotiashvili and it was very good with the flavours of dark fruit, spices and the typical earthiness of qvevri wine. The tannins were soft yet firm, lingering on the finish. The fact that my wine novice friends liked the wine proves that it IS a good wine. The winemaker is part of Raw Wine and inspects every bottle and numbers it with his signature.
2. Vino Underground
After the lovely late lunch, we headed into the city centre with our goal set to Vino Underground for more wine. I was so excited to go there because of its association with John Wurdeman, the founder of Pheasant’s Tears, and slow food.
It was buzzing with people chattering and a lively atmosphere. We managed to secure some space on a couch at the back cellar room and started looking at the wine menu, which was baffling with the names of unknown grape varieties and producers. A staff came to our rescue and gave us a few wines for tasting, but our friends, knowing nothing about amber wine, didn’t like any of them because of the tannic characteristic.
So I went over to the counter, tasted different wines and picked two bottles they might like. Amiran Otskhanuri Sapere was good, though not as good as the one at Chveni. This place is for natural wine lovers, and I must admit that the wine experience was disappointing, a bit touristic, made worse by unfriendly staff.
If you want to try Georgian wines with better foods, you can try 8000 Vintages, though it’s a bit out of the way. If it’s too far and you just want to buy some wines to take back home, try Wine Gallery in New Tbilisi or Vinetheca in Old Tbilisi.
3. Kafe Leila
The next day we explored the city and had lunch at Kafe Leila near Rezo Gabriadze Theathre. Although it was a sweet little place with the unique Moorish interior, the food wasn’t very impressive and the service was slow and poor.
Having said that, Lobio, the red bean stew, wasn’t bad and the way it was served was quite nice with cornbread and pickles including jonjoli. It was recommended by my friend but she forgot to mention it was a vegetarian cafe so it was a disaster for our meat-loving friends.
4. Culinarium Khasheria
We did all the touristic sites and decided to have dinner at Culinarium Khasheria, where we had the best meal and wine during our trip. The food is very fresh and has a modern take on traditional Georgian foods with added complexity and international flavours but stays close to its roots. The chef, Tekuna, also runs Cafe Littera, which is more of fine dining, and unfortunately we couldn’t try it but definitely on the next trip!
Every dish was flavourful and our Turkish friends went crazy with ajika(red pepper garlic sauce). The wines also made the trip memorable, especially Alexandre, for which I visited all wine shops in the old town. It’s made in a modern style, aged in oak after being fermented in qvevri, thus more approachable without a compromise on quality and complexity.
I tried to look up the wine after I got back but couldn’t find much on the internet.
On our last day, I felt like I hadn’t really had authentic traditional Georgian foods. I mean, all we had was a refined version of Georgian traditional dishes, plus I had to pick places considering our friends who have a strong aversion to cilantro. Leaving without eating good khinkali would be a shame, so hubby and I went for our last Georgian meal.
When we got there, however, we were told that the wait would be very long. With our stomach set on khinkali, we decided to wait for a table in the drizzling rain. Luckily hubby, with his persuasive charisma, got us in quickly.
The anticipated khinkali arrived, steaming, and wow, it was the best ever, absolutely worth the wait. The kebab, simple but really authentic, was very good as well.
Hold it by the crown, upside down, bite a small hole, drink the juice – it can be really hot so be careful! – and eat the rest except the crown.
Last but not least, if you are a fan of dough and cheese, try Retro for the best Khachapuri. We couldn’t make it there because we got caught in the rain on the way and ended up eating it at Samikitno on Shota Rustaveli Ave near Opera and Ballet Theatre. It’s a chain restaurant but the food wasn’t bad actually considering the reasonable price, cheap and cheerful.
6. 41 Gradus Art of Drinks
If you’re not a wine person or simply want a fun night out with unique cocktails, try this community-funded bar. This small, chic, minimalist-style bar is where super professional and friendly bartenders will blow your mind away with creative cocktails that is unheard of.
I loved the handwritten notebook as the menu and also the intimate ambience. Our friends, being a fan of hard liquor, absolutely enjoyed trying all sorts of unusual cocktails.
New Wine Festival
I planned to visit a couple of wineries but our trip coincided with New Wine Festival, which means that all wineries will be closed to be present at the festival. A bit disappointed at first but then I thought it might be even better to see and taste all the wines at once. Especially after learning that Naotari and Jakeli wines will be there, I became excited since I came across the wines at Raw Wine London and wanted to know more about them.
It was a lovely walk through the leafy streets that creep up to the funicular, seeing old mansions and apartments with a beautiful courtyard that reflect the rich history. When we got to the funicular station, there was a huge line and one of our friends, who speaks Russian, haggled with a taxi driver and got us all in one taxi, with me sitting on hubby’s lap.
It was all worth the effort and we had so much fun. If you like natural wine, orange wine, amber wine and such or simply like to try a wide range of Georgian wine, I suggest planning your trip around the festival, which takes place in May.
I’ll share some of the photos to give you an idea of the vibes and, when time allows, I’ll write a separate post with more details on some memorable wines.
It was great to taste so many wines and encounter other local grape varieties besides the well-known Saperavi, Kisi and Rkatsiteli. Towards the end of the wine-tasting spree, we grabbed one of our favourite wines and sat down with some bbq pork and cheese bread. How delightful!
I’ll visit Tbilisi again as soon as this pandemic ends, though travel experiences won’t be the same as the pre-Covid days unfortunately…