Hungry City: Old Tbilisi Garden in New York
26 September, 2014
The New York Times reports from a Georgia restaurant called “Old Tbilisi Garden”, located in Greenwich Village, New York.
‘“That is not a safe choice,” the waiter said. I had asked about the veal entrails, as mythopoeic a description of offal as I had ever seen on a menu, smacking of ritual sacrifice.
As prepared at Old Tbilisi Garden, in Greenwich Village, the dish (called kuchmachi) proved to be heart, liver and intestine, chopped so fine I might not have
guessed their origins, save for the occasional waft of deep nether funk. The nubs of meat were suffused with summer savory, coriander, marigold and blue fenugreek, an ensemble of herbs at once familiar and, in conjunction, slightly alien, like a musky, more sensuous bouquet garni.
Pikria Basaria, the chef, makes kuchmachi in the Megrelian style of western Georgia and the disputed territory of Abkhazia, her homeland. Ten years ago, at age 19, she won a green card through the Diversity Visa Lottery. She came to New York, studied political science at Hunter College, married and started cooking alongside her husband, Vano Kratsashvili, at a Georgian restaurant in Gravesend, Brooklyn.
Mr. Kratsashvili went on to cook at Oda House, one of only two restaurants in Manhattan to specialize in Georgian cuisine. Now there are three: The couple sold their Brooklyn restaurant last spring and, with Vasil Chkheidze, opened Old Tbilisi Garden on Bleecker Street in July.
The dining room is long and deep, ending in a garden with a shushing waterfall, trailing vines and lanterns tucked among the rocks. (Note that in summer, mosquitoes may find it as charming as you do.) A child-size mannequin has been installed on the sidewalk out front, wearing a black robe (chokha) and an unruly shag of a sheepskin hat (papakhi) and blending right in with the neighborhood.
If there is one Georgian dish that could bring Manhattan to its knees, it is adjaruli khachapuri, a thick flatbread with the ends tapered into blunt handles and the middle a caldron of near-volcanic cheese. A yolk slowly sets on top, like a giant gold pupil. Admire it, then beat the egg and cheese together and tear off bread to ladle it up.
There are other types of kachapuri (it is, gloriously, a genre), including round, pie-like imeruli, in which the bread is thinner and can barely contain the cheese within, and megruli, which is basically imeruli gilded with more cheese.
At times the amount of cheese on the table is stultifying: orbs of ricotta-like nadughi, flecked with mint and jeweled with pomegranate seeds; cheese-stuffed mushrooms, more accurately described as mushroom-stuffed cheese, a gooey mass that arrives still bubbling; and elarji, a kind of polenta in which the ratio of cornmeal to cheese is one-to-one.
When I ordered less wantonly, I was rewarded with more-subtle pleasures. Khmeli-suneli, a fragrant, faintly bitter spice blend, perfumes a soup of beef and rice and exalts an otherwise banal ensemble of cucumbers and tomatoes. Tkemali, a sour-sweet sauce of unripe plums, functions much like a brightness knob, intensifying the flavors of mtsvadi, grilled skewered meats.
Lamb is treated thoughtfully, slow-braised with eggplant, ground and molded into fine kebabs, and seeded with dzira (wild cumin) and tucked inside khinkali, hulking dumplings with sagging pleats. Khinkali are supposed to be lifted by their thick necks and nibbled — some say eaten whole, although this seems impossible —so the meaty juices run directly into your mouth.
I was resistant to some dishes, like sturgeon submerged in a watery walnut sauce and paired with bland ghomi, elarji minus the glut of cheese. Desserts perplexed, particularly one in which shredded apple and lemon meringue were draped in fudge. When asked if this was truly Georgian, the waiter snorted, “Are French fries French?”
But the lemonade! It is green as Midori and smells like licorice. The bottle’s label shows the culprit: tarragon. The recipe dates back to the Russian empire, when a Georgian pharmacist started mixing herbal syrups with water from local mineral springs. His concoctions caught the fancy of the czar and later Stalin, who purportedly ordered him in his old age to create a Soviet version of Coca-Cola.
In a way, he already had. The tarragon soda tastes of fizz, sugar and camouflaged medicine — that is to say, of childhood,’ the New York Times informs.

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