With its strategic location on the Silk Road, sandwiched between the Black and Caspian seas, Georgia has developed a unique culinary tradition, incorporating recipes from its neighbors as well as more far-flung trading partners. The tone oven, used for baking bow-shaped shoti bread, looks a lot like an Indian tandoor. A supra (feast) often includes an array of dishes resembling Turkish mezzes. Pomegranate frequently appears in savory recipes, as it does in Persian cuisine. And khinkali dumplings, traditionally filled with soup and meat, seem quite similar to Chinese xiaolongbao.
Most menus feature a wide range of tempting vegetarian dishes, making Georgia a surprisingly easy place to avoid meat, if not dairy. And few restaurants in Georgia offer formal presentations. In most cases, the food will be plentiful, flavorful, relatively inexpensive and perfect with a glass of local wine. We ate well in the Kakheti wine region, notably at Pheasant’s Tears winery and the Schuchmann Hotel, but most of Georgia’s best restaurants cluster in the capital city, Tbilisi.
Tucked into a 19th-century building near Liberty Square, this restaurant feels at once homey and stylish. Pheasant’s Tears winery (under the same ownership) consulted on the wine list, which has a fine selection of natural bottlings (produced organically and with minimal intervention). Our friendly waitress offered smart recommendations for pairings, suggesting a peachy and tannic Okro’s Mtsvane with an intense salad of spicy greens and sweet mulberries. A nutty, earthy Dasambi Tavkveri worked well with a plate of roasted pork belly and a slaw of purple cabbage, cilantro and sesame.
2 Ingorokva Street. Tel. (995) 32-298-2346
Inspiration for this cozy restaurant on the opposite riverbank from the Old Town struck when the owners discovered an old cookbook by Barbare Jorjadze. She traveled around Georgia in the 19th century, collecting recipes mostly from wealthy households and adapting them for the home cook. Eating at Barbarestan is a taste of Georgian history, but the plating feels contemporary. I started with some crunchy crayfish croquettes in a tart kumquat sauce with leek and mint purée, followed by tender bone-in quail glazed with honey and pomegranate, with a salad of watercress and cilantro and a large helping of ghomi (a cornmeal dish much like polenta) flavored with pungent sulguni cheese.
132 Aghmashenebeli Avenue. Tel. (995) 32-294-3779
This bright, contemporary spot in the historic sulfur bath district has mostly communal tables, as well as a small patio with views of the bathhouse domes. I give respect to any establishment that puts a giant framed photo of tripe on its wall, but I hewed to less adventurous options: a warm salad of artichoke hearts and wild Kakhetian purslane in a sweet soy-and-pomegranate dressing, and delectable shkmeruli, a dish of bone-in chicken in a rich and spicy garlic cream sauce. I also appreciated the large selection of wines by the glass, including a range of local natural wines.
23 Abano Street. Tel. (995) 32-272-1157
A short walk from Rooms Hotel Tbilisi, Keto and Kote is hidden down an unpromising dead-end alley (take the fork to the right). It has a pretty interior, with painted wood beams and numerous crystal globe pendant lights, but we chose to sit on the garden patio, with views of Tbilisi rooftops and the distant riverbank. Some of the servers were quite reserved — the waiter who brought our menus and our food never said a word — but the food and atmosphere were both delightful. I loved our appetizer of 10 mini-khinkali (dumplings), and my main course of barbecued pork with tangy plum sauce had delicious caramelization.
Keto and Kote
Davit Toradzis Kucha. Tel. (995) 55-553-0126
The décor of this small hotel and restaurant just across the river from the Ambassadori Tbilisi is resolutely traditional, with white tablecloths, wood-paneled walls and brass sconces. A live pianist playing Cole Porter and Irving Berlin enhanced the atmosphere, but the lighting managed the trick of being simultaneously dim and harsh. That quibble aside, I enjoyed our meal of upscale traditional Georgian cuisine immensely. The gebjalia was the star. In this unique appetizer, Imeretian cheese is formed into dumplings and filled with fresh mint, tarragon, cilantro, golden raisins, walnuts and pomegranate, then placed in a warm sauce of matsoni (yogurt) and cream. I also liked the trout stuffed with tarragon and Rachuli ham, but the spicy berry sauce overpowered the other flavors. As you might expect from a place called Vinotel, the wine list is excellent.
4 Elene Akhvlediani Ascent. Tel. (995) 32-255-5888