Letting a glass of orange wine breathe at his elbow, Mamuka Tsereteli scoured the Japanese menu at Daikaya for something to accompany it.
The wine from Georgia (the former Soviet republic, not the American state) looked the shade of brandy but tasted nothing like it, with tongue-smacking tannins, dried apricot and golden raisins overwhelming any anticipated sweetness.
Tsereteli might have paired it with such Georgian foods as chkmeruli (a garlicky chicken) and badrijani (a walnut-stuffed eggplant roll), if there were a place to order such items over lunch in Washington. Fortunately, the wine, which Tsereteli sold to Daikaya, also goes well with ramen.
“Soon, I hope, there will be a Georgian restaurant here,” said Tsereteli, 52, a professor of international studies at Johns Hopkins and American universities and owner of the Georgian Wine House, an import business. “I have a sense that it’s coming.”
Manhattan embraced its first dedicated Georgian eatery in 2013, and two more opened to rave reviews there last year. Tsereteli and others mention that frequently, as if to say, “It’s only a matter of time.” If the success here of Georgian wines — and, more recently, of a pizza-like food called khachapuri— is any indication, Georgian cuisine is primed to be Washington’s next international discovery.
If it is, Tsereteli could say he played a role, both as an importer who first brought Georgian wines to the city in 2005 and as a member of a little supper club that’s sharing Georgian cuisine with a side of culture.
He also got that addictive cheese bread onto its first Washington menu.
Tsereteli was hosting a 50-person event featuring Georgian winemakers at a Middle Eastern restaurant near Dupont Circle that, he realized the morning of, had not one Georgian dish to serve. So, as Tsereteli tells it, he asked the Levante’s kitchen staff to bake a few batches of khachapuri for the crowd. The often boat-shaped Georgian bread serves as a vessel for copious amounts of cheese, butter and in some versions an egg.
“Since that day, they’ve had three different types of khachapuri on their menu,” Tsereteli said over a lunch at Daikaya (a spot he chose because Levante’s is closed for renovations).
Last year, khachapuri spread to the internationally sourced evening menu atCompass Rose near 14th Street NW, where it’s fast becoming a late-night favorite, served until 2 and 3 a.m. And two versions of the baked dough are now served at Russian restaurant Mari Vanna near Dupont Circle.
Compass Rose’s owner, Rose Previte, had in mind to open an entirely Georgian concept after moving back in 2012 from Russia, where Georgian cuisine is ubiquitous and beloved. She consulted with the embassy and Tsereteli on the idea and decided that the city might not be ready for it. Plus, “you just don’t find a Georgian chef every day,” she said.
Previte plans to add a Georgian soup dumpling called kinkali to the menu in the spring, and she still wants to open a Georgian restaurant when the time is right.
“Obviously, D.C. is the perfect spot, because there are more people who have lived in or near Georgia than anywhere,” she said. Then she added, “I think the cheese bread would work anywhere in the country.”
Welcome to the supra
In lieu of a dedicated restaurant, a few Georgian food enthusiasts have begun hosting their own home-based supras, or Georgian feasts, in Washington. They often invite Georgian food virgins (like me) to the table in an effort to spread the gospel of a cuisine that has romanced them all.
“Georgians haven’t done a great job of proselytizing their own cuisine,” said Jenny Holm, 29, one of the supper club organizers and founder of the Georgian Table blog, who has become an avid convert.
Holm, like many Americans, first discovered Georgian restaurants while studying in Russia. A few years later, she jumped at the chance to teach English in — and eat her way through — Georgia for six months, returning to Washington in 2011.
With the help of a caterer, a chef, a wine expert and others, Holm helped throw the first supra in September, gathering 30 people, many of them new to the cuisine, in a home off 14th Street NW. The long evening of food and libations ended with a performance by a Georgian chanting choir, assembled at the last minute, and was proclaimed a resounding success.
Less than two weeks later, Holm took a month off from her job at a nonprofit group in the District to return to Georgia for a culinary victory lap, tasting the food of new regions. Wendy Stuart, a trained chef and nonprofit founder with wanderlust, joined her.
This past Sunday evening, the two hosted another, much smaller supra in Stuart’s Southwest Waterfront apartment, one designed to mimic the authentic meals they’d shared in Georgia. Tsereteli and Noel Brockett, a fellow Georgian who manages operations at the Georgian Wine House, brought the wine.
After opening a different vintage of that same amber-colored Orgo to start the evening, Brockett, an American, provided a quick education on the country he fell in love with after meeting the Georgian woman who is now his wife.
At the table, he served as the tamada, or Georgian toastmaster, whose duty is to keep the conversation flowing as much as the wine. He started with a toast to God and to the hostesses, Stuart and Holm, who had just slid cheese-oozing khachapuris onto our plates.
“Gaumarjos!” Brockett said, raising his glass.
The guests tried to repeat the foreign word, the equivalent of “cheers,” while still ladling khachapuri crust into their mouths. Soon, a heaping plate of garlic-crusted chicken joined the eggplant rolls, colorful salads and piles of palate-cleansing herbs already on the table. Red Georgian wine replaced the orange, followed by a semi-sweet to pair with pelamushi, a grape pudding, for dessert.
Brockett peppered the casual conversation with a few customary toasts, giving guests at the table a taste for tradition while not requiring them to respond with their own. Raising his glass to family and friendship, he explained that Georgians consider anyone who shares the table to be both.
Georgian food 101
Where Europe meets Asia, the fertile soils and diverse climate of Georgia, a country the size of West Virginia, have sustained its people through countless incursions over the centuries. (“You name the invaders, they’ve been in Georgia,” said Tsereteli. “Romans, Greeks, Arabs, Mongols, Persians, Turks, Russians. . . .”) Although influenced to some degree by each of those cultures, Georgian cuisine has stood the test of time.
It relies heavily on such spices as ground coriander and a wild blue fenugreek, on homemade cheeses, on hand-formed breads — and on hospitality. In homes, the Georgian table is set with more dishes than guests can conceivably eat without lingering for hours — and that’s the point.
Ground walnuts find their way into nearly everything: salad dressings, soups (often as a thickener), meat dishes and dessert. Georgians use their version of “saffron,” which is actually ground marigold petals, as ubiquitously as the Spanish use theirs. And they turn the more than 500 varieties of native grapes into pudding, fruit leather and, of course, wine.
Georgia’s 8,000-year tradition of fermenting wine in clay pots called qvevri is thought to be the oldest continuously used method, but Americans are just discovering its fruits (including white wines left orange by fermenting with skins and stems). In January, Forbes listed Georgia’s offerings among nine wines and spirits to start drinking in 2015.
Many vegan dishes have roots in Georgia, where Orthodox Christians traditionally abstained from meat for several holidays and still do for the Lenten season leading up to Easter; this meant no khachapuri for Tsereteli and Brockett at Sunday’s feast. Georgian dishes include pork, chicken and goat meat, but many still skew vegetarian.
Finding a proper Georgian meal without traveling to Georgia, however, is still tricky.
Paata Matchavariani, counselor of cultural affairs at the Embassy of Georgia, said the staff is including Georgian food and wine in more of its events as interest in it grows.
“Everybody loves it, and everybody asks if there’s a Georgian restaurant in Washington, D.C.,” Matchavariani said. “I hope that someone will open one.”