Having dedicated the month of February to sampling Kakhetian cuisine, I headed out one snowy evening to the Lilo district on the outskirts of Tbilisi to try out a new restaurant. The restaurant, Kakhelebi, has gained quite a following among Tbilisi gourmands since opening for business last year. Many hail the cuisine; almost as many are unhappy about the location. The only thing I can say about the Lilo neighborhood – a collection of small bakeries, grocery shops, miscellaneous stalls, muddy alley and littered highway – is that it can leave one feeling rather depressed. Any feeling of heaviness lifts instantly, however, after entering the restaurant. At the entrance you catch sight of a picture of Lilo in the 1990s, but are then transported into a cozy, Mediterranean-Caucasian environment – colored clay tile floor, warm stone walls, small furnace, folding screens, old photographs and accessories.
As we entered, we were overwhelmed by a strong smell emanating from the kitchen. We headed for a table in the farthest corner away from the kitchen, but quickly discovered that table was reserved. We took the table next to it, but soon were forced, with apologies, to move two tables away even though neither of those two tables was reserved. It seems the staff was anticipating the arrival of the type of guests who do not like anyone else sitting around them. We felt offended, especially since no one was seated at those tables for the entire time we were there. When we left at 19:00 – an hour before closing time – both tables were still empty.
The menu was compiled in a rather nice, convenient and witty way. Dishes come with embellished explanations: Khashlama – with mist; Shashlyk – performed by Chefs Nodar Atuashvili and Zaza Rekhviashvili – and such funny things. That improved our mood a little and we placed our order outright.
We did not have to wait long. Dishes are served quickly here, though the first one brought out for us, for some unknown reason, was a hot dish – Stewed Calf in tomato gravy (GEL 12), which was sizzling, very fresh and delicious. Only after that were we served our salad – Lagodekhi (GEL 15), a mix of red and green lettuce with julienne cucumbers and carrots, chopped onion, wedges of orange, grapefruit and tomato and very little Bulgarian pepper, all sprinkled with Kakhetian vegetable oil. I could have done without that very little Bulgarian pepper, although its presence in that salad was not unduly disturbing.
Kakhelebi’s bread – Kakhetian Shoti (GEL 3) baked from yeast-free dough and a pita-type Lavashi (GEL 1.50) – is extraordinary. The same cannot be said for the Wels Catfish (GEL 15) – its swampy smell and taste was not neutralized by grilling it or by smothering it with lemon, Narsharab or any other sauce. The only good thing that can be said about that Wels Catfish is that the serving was mercifully small. A serving of misty Khashlama (GEL 10) was meager too. We did not expect such thriftiness from this popular Kakhetian eating house. It would be better to increase the price of a dish than to leave customers unsatisfied. We were also disappointed with our next dish – Oyster Mushroom decorated with cloves of walnut (GEL 10), which was both over-dried and over-fried. The Shashlyk (GEL10) – thin, almost translucent pieces of meat – had burned edges as well. However, the Kebab (GEL 10) was a standout.
We sampled home-made Kakhetian wine and my dinner companion also sipped red stewed fruit juice with lemon. Wine made in the Kakhetian way is quite aromatic. We tried the aged Cabernet and Merlot – two or three years old. Saperavi was the best. Wines here are quite cheap. Although the menu does not list prices for wine served by the glass, the staff upon request readily served wine by the glass and also let us taste different wines. We did not drink too much before we left the restaurant and turned to the muddy alley where we had parked our car.
Address: 2, Kakheti Highway
Cuisine: Kakhetian, Georgian
Hours: Daily, from 09:00 to 20:00
Bank cards: Accepted
Price: GEL 80-100 (Dinner for two including wine and gratuity)
Parking: Street parking outside restaurant
Tel: +995 32 240 74 54
Mobile: +995 99 2 48 15 05 / 2 42 48 52
This article first appeared in Tabula Georgian Issue # 89, published 27 February 2012.