Monday, November 28, 2016

Perks of the Job

Throwback Story!
Photo courtesy of Barbarestan's Facebook page
One Thursday this summer, I was invited to my first interview/tasting at a local restaurant as a representative of GNTA. I wrote a piece for our website about atypical culinary experiences in Tbilisi- basically, places to go when you're sick of will probably never be published because I ditched my beloved GNTA when I moved to the embassy.

I think this is actually a much-needed article. I also made a video project, and in our interviews with tourists, quite a few people who were towards the end of the trip mentioned how repetitive Georgian food can be, and that they were kind of getting sick of it.

Rather than having them run to Wendy's or one of the Chinese restaurants that have been increasingly popping up, we want people to be able to continue to immerse themselves in Georgian culture and support Georgian businesses! So, I started making a list of alternative Georgian cuisine.

The first (and, as it turned out, only) stop on my culinary tour was Barbarestan.
The concept was developed after the founders discovered a 1914 comprehensive guide to hosting guests, etiquette, and culinary art, including several hundred recipes from the late-19th century Georgian aristocracy, written by the Duchess Barbare Eristavi Jorjadze. The menu and style was adapted from Jorjadze’s book.

Barbarestan is located on the ground floor and basement of the Qurasbediani family home, the owners of the restaurant. Their 10 children frequently greet diners, welcoming them into what feels like the cozy living room of a Georgian grandmother.

The Qurasbediani family (Facebook)

Barbarestan is the place to go when you seek a high-class, high-quality experience that will challenge your expectations of Georgian food. They have a rotating seasonal menu, and live music on Saturday nights!

We were invited because someone in the office is friends with the manager. I felt like a celebrity when I walked into the restaurant in my blazer with a pen and notebook in my hand and the manager was there waiting for us. I swear our waiter was a sleight-of-hand magician...I barely noticed him, yet our glasses were always full and we were given clean plates for each course - served by our waiter right at the table off of trays that were literally thinly sliced logs...every detail of this place was amazing. I realized it would be a long lunch early on when I went to the bathroom when our host began ordering, and he was still ordering when I returned...

Barbarestan is a relatively new restaurant that really takes Georgian food to the next level. The concept-manager, Levan Kokiashvili, basically called what we think of as "traditional" Georgian food (khachapuri, khinkali, mtsvadi/shashlik) "peasant food." He believes that the Georgian culinary scene is at a very low level of sophistication, and with Barbarestan (and his culinary consulting/business services firm Gastronaut) he aims to raise it to a higher level of culinary excellence.

Our lunch and interview with Kokiashvili quickly became a eight course meal with two types of wine, Barbarestan's signature house-made bread, and never-empty glasses of frothy, fresh cucumber-basil juice.

Each course was small, like a Georgian tapas, but quickly added up. Levan wanted us to try everything, and I wasn't sure whether it would be impolite to not eat everything, or seem rude to eat to much...for a bit I tried to kind of channel Gordon Ramsay on Kitchen Nightmares where he orders like 15 dishes and just takes bites of each, but then I remembered that he does that because the food is gross. The food at Barbarestan, however, was freaking amazing, so I settled on the tactic of just eating everything.

Our table was Levan, my colleague Beka, and another colleague who had made the connection for us. I had a little trouble keeping up with the boys on the wine front - also they were giving me special attention because I was the sole female at the table, so my glass was constantly being refilled. While my companions drained their wine glasses, I struggled to finish each course quickly enough (since they also gave me bigger portions) while nodding, smiling, taking notes, interrupting with the occasional question, AND trying to show adequate appreciation for the seriously incredible wine. By the time dessert came, my head was spinning. Levan is amazing - 33 years old, completely self-made, an entrepreneur, sommelier, culinary visionary, and handsome as hell. Also, completely exhausting to talk to. He has a soft voice that you have to kind of lean in to hear, but is passionate and quick, and I don't even know how he managed to eat anything as he barely stopped speaking for a minute. He skipped effortlessly from topic to topic, transitioning with a sip of wine from talking about the building's history to explaining the process of making some obscure mountain diary products. He spoke in beautifully-accented (if grammatically shaky) Russian, occasionally slipping into Georgian or English when it suited him - I think he even dropped a couple of words in Italian! His bright eyes, easy smile, and colorfully tattooed forearms put me quickly at ease (or was that the 3rd glass of wine?).

a version of this is on Levan's left forearm
-by famous 19th c. Georgian painter Pirosmani

Let's see if I can remember what we ate...

-cucumber-basil juice, water, saperavi (dry red) and the best kisi (dry white) I've ever had
-spiced flat bread triangles with 6 or 7 different kinds of thick dips (caramelized onions, spinach and cheese, almond sauce, eggplant, roasted tomatoes, and more...)
-cheese plate with several rare Georgian cheeses, variously spiced
-cucumber salad
-melted dambal xacho (obsessed with this!!!)
-"artichoke" soup - a big tomato stuffed with ground beef in a light artichoke sauce
-roast beef
-fresh trout with mushrooms
-dessert: pelamushi pie - pelamushi (jellied grape juice) on a crushed walnut crust with caramel sauce accents
bread and dips (Facebook)

I also think there may have been one other course I'm forgetting...but 8 is probably enough!!

The food was unbelievable - I even enjoyed the onions, which I usually avoid. I am dreaming of that Kisi wine and dambal xacho...I wonder if they deliver...

There is so much more I could talk about, but I will keep this short. From the brick and lace table cloth wine cellar and auxiliary dining room to personal wine pairings to the precision and care put into the authenticity of each dish, Barbarestan knocked my socks off. Next time you are looking for a light meal full of atmosphere and unexpected, but unmistakably Georgian flavors - head to Barbarestan.
Wine cellar/basement dining room (Facebook)

The most important thing I learned at our lunch? Milk is apparently the best cure for a hangover...will have to test this theory this weekend ;)