Saturday, April 7, 2012

Satsivi in Medieval Tbilisi

Perched on the slopes above the Kura River, and sprinkled with medieval churches and old wooden houses, the capital of Georgia is one of the most atmospheric cities you could hope to visit. It is also one of the few places in Georgia where you are likely to find satsivi, one of the most famous and memorable dishes in a country renowned for its cuisine.

 The Georgian capital, Tbilisi, has an almost kaleidoscopic range of architecture, from ancient stone churches to grand Soviet constructions, and traditional wooden houses to modern high-rise buildings. The city is around ten times the size of any other city in Georgia, yet it is small enough to get around the main sites on foot. It was founded in the 5th century by the Georgian king Vakhtang Gorgasali, whose fortress stood on the site of the present Metekhi church above the Kura River; there is a statue of the ruler next to the church.
Among the city’s narrow lanes and along its broad avenues you’ll stumble upon everything from cafés to carpet shops and thermal baths, and some first-rate theaters and museums, together with a wider choice of restaurants than anywhere else in the country. Satsivi is one of Georgia’s most luxurious dishes, and this classic concoction is often served on festive occasions.
Appearing deceptively simple, satsivi is essentially a whole portioned turkey, or sometimes chicken, bathed in a thick walnut sauce – and therein lies the secret.
 The sauce is a mix of ground walnuts and a distinctive blend of spices that incorporates coriander, cinnamon, cloves, paprika, a sprinkling of chili pepper flakes,and a touch of saffron or ground marigold petals. A similar, ready-made spice mix called khmeli-suneli is sometimes used. The turkey (or chicken) is poached, then roasted, and finally combined with a sauce made from the poaching liquid and the ground walnuts, onions, garlic, and spices. The satsivi is not served piping hot – the dish is allowed to stand for a period before serving, its sauce thickening as it cools to room temperature. Any extra sauce is eagerly scooped up with bread or gomi (polenta-like cornmeal porridge). The Georgians even have a summer version of satsivi called bazhe, another nut-based sauce dish that uses chicken or turkey, but fewer spices.
Georgian feasts are legendary, and eating out in Georgia is a genuinely memorable experience. As well as dishes such as satsivi and chakapuli (lamb with fresh tarragon and other herbs), there is a wide range of delicious appetizers, including more unusual ones such as khachapuri, a delicious cheese-filled bread. No self-respecting Georgian table would be complete without a plate of khinkali – fig-shaped, meat-filled dumplings eaten with plenty of freshly ground black pepper. The challenge lies in holding these by the “stem” and catching the flood of juice that runs out with the first bite.
 The Best Places to Eat Satsivi
Hotel Kopala moderate
With a terrace overlooking the old town, the Hotel Kopala is a great place to stay, and its restaurant – one of the finest in Tbilisi – has an excellent range of traditional Georgian dishes.
 Starched white tablecloths indoors give way to pretty wrought-iron tables and chairs on the lovely open terrace, where customers dine at a relaxed pace. This vantage point has unbeatable views of the Metekhi church and across the river to the Narikala fort, rising above the atmospheric streets and houses of the old town. Inside the restaurant, large floor-to-ceiling windows share the same view (as do most of the rooms in the hotel). The menu includes either satsivi or bazhe, together with other favorites such as juicy shashlik (kebabs) and various specials, such as stuffed mushrooms. Both satsivi and bazhe are served with warming, homey gomi – the preferred earthy accompaniment to these thick, fragrant sauces. Pick a wine from the extensive Georgian wine list, and enjoy a delicious dining experience with an unforgettable view.
8–10 Chekhov Street, Tbilisi; open noon–11 PM daily;
 Also in Tbilisi
The large Kolkheti restaurant (+995 32 357153; moderate), on the bank of the Kura River, has long tables with comfortable wood and leather chairs, and a wide range of traditional dishes including satsivi made – unusually – with sturgeon and other fish. Ortachala (+995 32 788050; moderate) is another good choice in the Georgian capital. For an indulgence in khinkali, head for Khinklis Sakhli (; inexpensive) on Rustaveli Avenue, which specializes in khinkali in all their guises, along with other Georgian dishes.
Also in Georgia
 There is no guarantee of finding satsivi on the menu in restaurants outside the Georgian capital, but one of the better bets if you’re in Telavi is the Hotel Rcheuli Marani (www.; moderate), which has its own cellar restaurant, the Old Marani.
 Around the World
 The excellent (and appropriately named) Tbilisi (+44 20 7607 2536; moderate) restaurant on London’s Holloway Road serves a delicious satsivi, among other Georgian dishes, including some mouthwateringly good entrée platters and super khinkali. They also serve Georgian wines such as the heady Pirosmani. Little Georgia (+44 20 7739 8154; moderate) and Mimino (; moderate) are two more excellent choices in London that both have regularly changing specials.
 A Day in Tbilisi
 A walking tour of Tbilisi is the best way to see its historic churches and explore the warren of streets that run through the old town and up to the hilltop fort.
 Start at Rustaveli Avenue, then head downhill past the State and Rustaveli theaters and the Kashveti church, to Freedom Square and the historic Sioni Cathedral. Continue to the Kura River, crossing the Metekhi bridge to the Metekhi church and the statue of the founder of Tbilisi, Vakhtang Gorgasali.
 Return to the southern side of the river and head up through the warren of old streets of the old town (with their bathhouses) to the Narikala fortress and the botanical gardens. From here walk west to the huge statue of Kartlis Deda, Mother of Kartli (the central region of Georgia), who – in true Georgian fashion – wields an enormous sword in one hand while the other holds a bowl of wine.
Wander back down through the old town for dinner – and wine – on the terrace at Hotel Kopala.
Tbilisi’s international airport, around 9 miles (15 km) outside town, is connected to the city by bus, train, and taxi.
Irine’s Place (inexpensive) is a hugely popular guesthouse.
 Hotel Villa Mtiebi (moderate) has stylish, Art Nouveau-decorated rooms, set around a plant-filled atrium.
 The British House (moderate) has sumptuous old-style rooms.
 Georgian Wines
 Relatively little-known outside the Caucasus and Russia, Georgian wine is superb, and Georgia may be the oldest area of wine production in the world – dating back to around 4000 BC, when locals buried it in the ground in clay jars to ferment. The main area for wine production is the Kakheti region in the east, in particular Telavi. Among the most distinctive of Georgian wines are semisweet reds such as Pirosmani or Khvanchkara. The country has an elaborate wine toasting tradition, which includes a tamada or toastmaster whose duty it is to propose suitable toasts throughout the course of a feast, and make sure no guest runs short of gvino (wine).

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