When I was visiting St. Petersburg, Russia last spring, I ate my first bites of Georgian food. As far as Matt was concerned, much of the best food in Petersburg comes out of restaurants specializing in food from the southern Caucuses: Georgia and Armenia’s proximity to Turkey and the Mediterranean lends the food a vibrancy unseen further north. Yet the harsher weather and stark mountainous geography adds its own ascetic quality to the food. There may not be a huge variety of ingredients from which to choose, but those that are available are prepared with all of the spice and excitement of Georgia’s southern neighbors.
One of Matt’s favorite restaurants to visit was a rollicking space he called “Caucasian Party Restaurant.” I believe the actual name was something along the lines of “a restaurant for khinkali and khachapuri” but the party restaurant moniker stuck. Why party? It’s BYOL (liquor that is), so big groups of big men would gather in the oversize booths and share bottles on bottles of their own personal vodka. These men seem to spend hours at their tables, drinking and eating astronomical amounts of food—grilled cheese, skewered meats, baskets of bread, plates of pickles, and plenty of khinkali. It’s a sight to see, even when having much less of a party (but still a good meal) at your own table.
We visited not for the partying, but for the dumplings. Khinkali are Georgian dumplings that somewhat resemble Shanghai soup dumplings. On steroids. These things are seriously as big as a fist. The cinched top is so thick that the dumpling can be clutched like a lollipop and eaten upside down; serious khinkali eaters ditch the handle after slurping up the rich broth inside to save room for more dumplings (and to keep track of how many have been eaten, Man V. Food-style).
On another night, we ventured to a decidedly fancier Caucasian restaurant for their khachapuri. Khachapuri is most accurately a name for a family of Georgian cheese-filled flatbreads, as there are at least seven or eight distinct versions of the bread. Some are open-faced and filled with melty cheese, while others are closed and stuffed with tangy, aged cheese easy to pick up and eat as a snack. The khachapuri at this one particular Petersburg restaurant were in the Adjara style, shaped like fat canoes filled with molten cheese, butter, and runny eggs. The dough is buttery rich and tangy, but it has enough structure to stand up to the bombastic filling. I still remember this dish fondly, almost a year later, with hopes that I will one day learn to make it myself.
So imagine my excitement when I learned about a local cook who travels around with a mobile khachapuri cart and throws pop-up khinkali dumpling parties every once in a blue moon. Who is this man? Why hadn’t I heard of him before? When can I get my fix?
It turns out this man, Boris Portnoy, was not truly destined to be my best friend, and his organization, Satellite Republic, was not fated to be my new source for Caucasian food. He is about to close shop here in the US and set off for Australia, leaving my hopes for an infinite supply of khinkali delivered to my front door totally diminished. I did, however, manage to snag a seat at his final pop-up at The Punchdown, a wine bar in Oakland, a couple of weeks ago.
The menu was a selection of Georgian-style dishes with strong California influences, many cooked on Portnoy’s mobile grill set-up on the front patio of the restaurant. Items like grilled eggplant rolled around ground walnuts (Badrijani) and lightly dressed Persian cucumbers reflected the simple yet flavorful style of cooking that Matt recognized from his time eating in Russia.
Other dishes, like the asparagus and peas with yogurt and chanterelle mushrooms borrowed more from California cuisine; as one friend said later, “They don’t eat f-ing asparagus in the caucuses.” Still, the flavors—preserved lemon and dill—were strongly evocative of Georgia’s connection to both Russian and Mediterranean cuisine. Briny lemon and punchy dill are not a typical pairing for California chefs. A dish of asparagus, peas, and mushrooms at say, Gather in Berkeley, would instead be a mixed grill, with the vegetables charred and dressed simply in olive oil and Maldon salt.
Muzhuzhi Tolmas, grape leaves stuffed with bulgur, pine leaves and pigs foot meat, were equally potent—gamey almost to the point of being off-putting. Much easier, and even more delectable in their simplicity were the three mains. First up were two barely smoked fillets of trout dressed lightly with a bright blood orange relish. Next, we gleefully dug into quartered hen tabaka, grilled under a brick next to a single slender grilled ramp, and licked off the rich schmalz coating our fingers. Following the bird were lamb belly skewers so tender we forgot that they were missing the grilled oven grape vines advertised on the menu.
But we came here for the khinkali and khachapuri, right?
The khachapuri was, frankly, just okay. Made in the less goopy Imeretian style, this particular khachapuri was made with super thin pastry-like bread wrapped around sharp dried sulguni cheese, much like a pupusa. What should have been a rich and easy to eat snack was instead lackluster. By the time we bit into the bread, the pastry had lost any shred of crispness and the cheese was tepid and fairly bland.
Even more dissapointing was the fact that there were no khinkali on the menu. Sure, the dumplings must be labor intensive, but for a last-pop-up-ever blow-out, you’d think Portnoy and his crew would have gone all out.
The Punchdown, on the other hand, was firing on all cylinders. The bar has a wonderful selection of rare wines, and they served an all-Georgian wine list for the evening. My three-wine flight included a sweet and fruity 2010 Chardakhi Rkatsiteli, a neon orange and fantastically dry 2010 Alaverdi Monastery Rkatsiteli, and a challengingly tannic 2009 Nika Saperavi. Matt chose a couple of different wines, most notably a glass of 2011 Pheasant’s Tears Kisi that tasted more like Scotch than wine. For the wine education alone, the meal was a worthwhile experience. Add in a couple more lamb belly skewers, and I would have almost forgotten my yearning for khinkali and oozing, cheesy khachapuri.