Georgian food might just take this year’s lead as my favorite international cuisine.
I first experienced a taste of Georgia at Manhattan’s most authentic Moscovian restaurant, Mari Vanna. The American outpost of Moscow’s hot dining destination, Mari Vanna offers high-end Russian fare to smartly dressed expats in a vintage tearoom-meets-underground lounge. My Russian friend, Sage, brought me to Mari Vanna for a kind of culinary dress rehearsal; a run-through intro to typical Russian cuisine before my trip to Moscow. In addition to platefuls of Russian standards, Sage ordered a Georgian specialty: khachapuri, a type of cheese-stuffed pizza bread that just about blew my mind.
I knew instantly that Georgian food was right up my alley. Though totally underrated, it can be described as the best of all worlds, combining flavors from both Eastern Europe and the Middle East. The Russians have long revered the complexity of Caucasian (derived from the Russian and Ottoman Empires) cuisine. Despite recent years of political strife between countries, Georgian food remains a fond Russian favorite.
Everyone in Moscow has a favorite Georgian restaurant, and I received a number of earnest recommendations. One name came up more than once, so Artur, my pal from St. Petersburg, and I headed for Suliko, located near the Polyanka Metro station.
Stepping into Suliko’s dining room feels like entering another world. With design elements from the Georgian countryside such as ornately carved wooden banquettes, and a sculpted stone fountain, the below-ground dining room feels like an exotic, upscale cavern. At one end of the main dining room, musicians perform live Georgian folk music with quick, lilting melodies in minor keys.
We ordered a bottle of Azerbaijani red, as an embargo keeps traditional Georgian wine out of circulation. The menu was vast and everything sounded amazing. I kept wishing for a table of ten so that I could sample every dish. We began with a variety of mezze, small appetizers, representing some of the cuisine’s more popular dishes.
A typical Georgian snack, basturma is thinly sliced, air-dried beef dusted in a dry rub of cumin, garlic and paprika. Full of flavor, this is Middle-Eastern beef jerky at its best.
Satsivi, a walnut cream sauce served cold, comprises some of Georgia’s most popular dishes. At Suliko, the chicken satsivi is topped with a tangy chili oil.
Georgian farmer’s cheese, sulguni, is served fried in a cast-iron pan. Georgians consider this fried, salty cheese their national dish. If I hadn’t fallen completely head over heels with Georgian cuisine up to this point, the fried sulguni most definitely sent the Foodie International over the edge.
Because I couldn’t get that unbelievable cheesy bread from New York out of my mind, we ordered the khachapuri. Moscow’s close proximity to Georgia drives quality and authenticity up a notch. The flaky, croissant-like dough oozes with gooey, salty farmer’s cheese. Served as a round pie, and sliced like (white) pizza, this dish is among the best I’ve ever had. I really should consider opening up a khachapuri stand in New York; I’m sure I’d make a killing.
Dolmas, an Eastern Mediterranean standard, are prepared with ground meat-stuffed grape leaves, bathed in a spicy yogurt sauce.
Chakapuli is one of Georgia’s signature dishes, meat slow-cooked in clay pan, marinated in a wine and herb sauce. We ordered chicken and beef, prepared with a sweet red wine, topped with pomegranate seeds.
Another dish cooked in a sizzling clay pan, this cumin-spiced chicken with tomato is topped with freshly chopped cilantro.
If more people were aware of the flavors and complexities of Georgian cuisine, I have no doubt it could rise to immense popularity throughout the Western World. As Russia gradually becomes a more frequented tourist destination, I have little doubt that word will spread. During my one week in Moscow, I saw only a handful of tourists from the States. Perhaps effects of Cold War propaganda still linger in the back of many travelers’ minds. In my experience, Russia is an amazing travel destination. The people are open and friendly, the streets are safe, and the depth and history of the culture is unlike any other on earth.
Suliko is located at: 42/2 Bol. Polyanka
Visit the (non-English) website at: http://www.suliko.ru
2010 Mileage Total: 48380