Last April, four foreign guests and an equal number of Georgian hosts, myself included, dined at one of the newly opened restaurants in the Old Tbilisi district. After dinner, one of our guests – a British lady – turned to me and, as often happens, started talking about Georgian cuisine: “Could you please explain, as I think about it all the time and cannot figure it out: Since the 1990s when I arrived in Georgia, I am always invited to various restaurants – newly opened as well as old and well-tested ones – but no matter which restaurant I am at, I eat one and the same dishes with one and the same taste, year after year.” Then she sort of apologized: “Don’t get me wrong – I like Georgian cuisine very much; I think you understand what I mean – unvarying, predictable….”
That conversation with the British lady sprang to mind one frigid February evening this year when I visited Mandari. I would liked to have imparted to her the joy and pleasure experienced at Mandari. That lady who had sought innovative Georgian cuisine in vain would have discovered, as I did, a distinctive new Georgian cuisine which was still as “yet unseen, unheard and revolutionary.”
It was not by mere coincidence that a quiet Georgian culinary revolution began unfolding on New Year’s Eve when Chef Tekuna Gachechiladze opened the door of Mandari, a new restaurant of the Hotels and Restaurants Management Group – m|group. Gastronomic diversity experienced there exceeded all expectations: traditional and innovative cuisine fused into an amazing mélange of aromas and flavors at once familiar and exotic.
Mandari is the name for old Georgian peda or pita bread smeared with butter. The restaurant menu is rather short – containing just a few appetizers, a few main dishes and four soups. The diversity here lies in those tastes and aromas so lavishly and unexpectedly scattered throughout the moderate-size dishes. A visitor to this restaurant is suddenly immersed in a multi-sensory experience created by the Chef. In that ultimate sensory experience, the creator skillfully challenges expectations, aspirations and memories: khinkali (Georgian meat dumplings) filling but wrapped in thin gyoza (Asian dumplings) dough – have you ever tried that? The same dough but with prawn filling – how do you like that? Is it Georgian? Not Georgian? I try Baje (Georgian walnut sauce) with Elarji (corn porridge with cheese). Is it unusual? Definitely. Is it familiar? Well, there is something familiar… yes, why of course, it is Baje! Is it unusual? Rather. Baje is very balanced because it is made from almonds. Elarji are airy and soft concoctions. That prawn dumpling is a real chef d’oeuvre.
Fish dominates the main dishes. Here as well one experiences the Chef’s savoir-faire: Georgian cuisine is essentially heavy whereas fish is easily digestible. The choice of fish is so unusual that curiosity prevails. For example, Black Sea garfish in Miso Sauce and sprinkled with sesame seeds; it is difficult to say which I prefer more – the visual or aromatic effect. Beef Kharcho (traditional Georgian soup with meat and rice in a spicy bouillon) is a rich and pungent blend of Georgian, Indian and North African themes. Couscous proves a far more interesting accompaniment than the usual hundred-times-tried ghomi (Georgian corn porridge). The du jour menu also deserves praise – on the day we visited, it was roast duck breast served with mashed quince and ginger. One could hardly imagine any dish quite so unusual and satisfying. Service is amiable, professional and unobtrusive.
There is much to be said commending the wine list as well, but I have been so unsparing in my description of the cuisine that space is limited here. Of necessity, I will be brief: the choice of wines is quite diverse; especially interesting are wines stored in qvevris (Georgian earthenware vessels) – among the white wines, Tsarapi from the Wine Cellar of Alaverdi Monastery is recommended; among red ones, Saperavi from the Vinottera winery. On a future visit, it will be worth trying these wines with such unusual dishes as piglet from Senaki in the Samegrelo region, cooked in the Beijing way and prepared only if ordered in advance.
Mandari – Georgian Fusion
Address: 11, Mosashvili Street
Hours: Daily, from 18:00 to 02:00
Bank cards: Accepted
Price: GEL 180 (Dinner for two including wine and gratuity)
Parking: Mosashvili Street
This article first appeared in Tabula Georgian Issue # 87, published 13 February 2012.