People like to ask travel and food writers about their favorite countries for eating. I name the usual suspects—Italy, Mexico, Japan. And then there’s my dark horse: Georgia (“the country,” I sometimes clarify, depending on my audience). The country is an ancient melting pot at the crossroads of Europe, Asia, Russia and the Middle East; a place with a complicated history; a self-proclaimed capital of life, love, food and wine in the “forgotten backyard of Europe.”
The primary city, Tbilisi, is especially rich in character, texture, color and eccentricities. One of my hosts during a recent trip called it a “Eurasian little Paris with a lot of patina.” But the food portions in France were never so big. Nor were the flavors such a kaleidoscope.
If you’ve ever been to Georgia you know what I mean, and why I count it among my favorite places for dining. It’s a country where the food is varied, impossibly fresh, rich, light, complex, satisfying and above all abundant. Before my first trip to Tbilisi, a friend gave me a piece of useful advice: Pack loose-fitting trousers.
Georgian hospitality knows no bounds. A famous phrase has it that “A guest is a gift from God.” Every meal seems to be a banquet, and almost without fail, there comes a moment when the servers give up and set more food on top of the food that’s already on the table.
A weeklong visit in October reminded me of that. It also showed off the diversity and evolution of the city’s restaurant scene—one with more quality and variety than what I saw only five years ago.
At the same time, some things never change. The Dezerter Bazaar is the largest and oldest open-air food market in Tbilisi, named after army deserters who allegedly sold their equipment there more than 100 years ago. It’s a decidedly unvarnished experience, with lots of shouting, lots of jostling and, especially, lots of sampling.
American transplant and guide extraordinaire Paul Rimple led a group of international food journalists through the warren of stalls at the center of a city he calls the “wild, wild East.” He paused to let us taste strings of nuts dipped like candles into a grape roux called churchkhela, a mildly spicy sour plum sauce called tkemali that Georgians use as a condiment on seemingly everything, and hunks of salty goodness that vendors sliced off for us as we passed through the “cheese gauntlet.”
He introduced us to his “spice girl” and his “nut lady,” which is more innocent than it sounds, and we wound up in a corner of the market where the market’s “pickle king” had set out paper plates of pickles and cheesy bread. The seller from the neighboring stall offered her spicy adjika paste and the ubiquitous Georgian firewater called chacha, which is taken as shots from tiny plastic cups. We stood around the heavily laden table, eating and drinking, a sort of pre-game before lunch.
The flipside of all this old-school, unfussy deliciousness is the city’s burgeoning fine dining scene. That was especially on display during last month’s Tbilisi Gastro Week, an international gathering of Georgia’s top chefs and culinary stars from abroad. As with all food festivals, the idea is to provide the city’s food lovers with novelty and surprises and to allow for the sort of creative cross-pollination that happens when a bunch of chefs gather to eat, shop, cook, drink and discuss their food philosophies and gastronomic obsessions.
Or perhaps it’s all just an excuse for a fabulous party, which it certainly was. The opening dinner saw locals and international guests seated at long tables in the garden courtyard of the chic Rooms hotel, tucking into a four-hands menu prepared by local chef Giorgi Ninua (of the deservedly popular Otsy) and longtime chef Hans Neuner of the Michelin two-star Ocean in Portugal (which watchers of such things have favorited to get a third star when the new rankings are announced in February).
Things ended even more lavishly, beneath the fairy lights in the glorious garden at Café Littera, where resident chef Tekuna Gachechiladze (whose “new Georgian” cuisine has been honored with a berth in the World’s 50 Best Discovery list) joined forces with Bangkok sustainability pioneer Deepanker Khosla of the neo-Indian Michelin two-star Haoma to create an unforgettable closing meal.
In between, the dreamy Ninia’s Garden was the site of a collaboration between local chef Meriko Gubeladze and Alejandro Serrano (one Michelin star at his namesake restaurant in Spain); Tbilisi restaurateur Keti Bakradze collaborated with Michael van der Kraft of Rotterdam’s popular 12-seat eatery Tres; and Ramaz Gemiashvili welcomed Danish chef Kamilla Seidler (who made her name at Gustu in La Paz, Bolivia, where she was named Best Female Chef by Latin America’s World’s 50 Best in 2016) to prepare a dinner at the Monograph Hotel.
Although the week was not without its new-event hiccups, the celebratory spirit ran strong. The organizers expect Tbilisi Gastro Week to be an annual event, and plans are underway to put together a similar festival in 2024. While specifics are still being hammered out, there are still plenty of culinary reasons to visit Tbilisi almost any time of year.
The refined service and refreshing takes on Georgian staples at Ninua’s Otsy make it a pleasure to visit even without guest stars. Ditto for the romantic vibe and accomplished cooking at Gachechiladze’s Café Littera.
Elsewhere, the city’s best wine bars offer small plates that stand alone or match perfectly with Georgia’s famous amber wines—“real wine” in the words of Georgia’s famous winemaker John Wurdeman, not the “mean sisters of white but the introspective cousins of red”—that are made in the traditional, 8,000-year-old way. Wurdeman made his name with the cult-favorite winery Pheasant’s Tears in Sighnahghi, but in the capital, he’s involved with the no-frills Vino Underground, a basement wine bar that was created by six winemakers with zero pretensions.
Other wine bars are more ambitious, food-wise. The low-lit Craft Wine Restaurant, for instance, has a simple but quality menu of housemade lavash (bread), bean hummus, Georgian charcuterie and veal with jonjoli (a type of flower) sauce and olives. The lighthearted, breezy Poliphonia takes a similar tack, with an emphasis on seasonal, organically farmed ingredients—the house-fermented pickles are a standout.
The classic finer-dining restaurants have their charms too. The rickety-looking wooden staircases and balconies trussing Keto Kote led us (the New Yorker among us, at least) to joke about the resemblance to Coney Island’s Cyclone, but the lush garden was a delight, and the classic dining room inside was the site of a lavish lunch of cheeses, breads, salads (heavy on the walnuts and eggplant, of course) and roasted meats. The alfresco spreads and salads at Shavi Lomi were perfectly light. And Barbarestan kicks things up a notch with a level of ambition that landed it on the World’s 50 Best Discovery list even as it remains a family restaurant serving recipes based on writer and chef Barbare Jorjadze’s original cookbook of 19th-century Georgian classics. Its old-world interiors match the vintage vibes on the plates.
It’s that mix of tradition and modernity, national pride and international ambitions and hospitality that knows no bounds—both in welcoming guests to the table and inviting foreign chefs into the kitchen—that makes Tbilisi one of the most exciting food cities right now.