Tbilisi on My Mind: We Are Georgians Plays an Old Sweet Culinary Song That's Sure to Linger
All photos by Bradley Hawks for the Village Voice
The khinkali felt like they landed with a thud, even though Marina Maisuradze-Olivo placed them in front of us gingerly, careful not to disturb the bulbous dumplings' thin-skinned bottoms. Wrapped around a mixture of pork and veal, their dough is pleated, forming a dense knot at the top, which is used as a handle during eating. Most people leave the nubs alone, but I didn't mind wrestling with the chewy starch after slathering the boiled ends in ajika, a hot-pepper condiment made with spices like coriander and blue fenugreek. Maisuradze-Olivo's nephew, Giorgi Maisuradze, imports the mixture from Georgia, and it adds savory herbal depth to many of her dishes at We Are Georgians (230 Kings Highway, Brooklyn; 718-759-6250), the restaurant the two own and operate in Brooklyn. These include juicy lulya kebabs made from ground lamb and onions shaped into casing-less sausages, and the aforementioned dumplings, which are eaten like soup dumplings, their juices slurped before the rest of the precious parcel is devoured. Assuredly spiced, the pudgy ones served here are just about perfect. Their appearance on every table in the modest storefront confirms that.
Maisuradze-Olivo is the head chef, often staying in the kitchen well past midnight while regulars trade stories and sip beers purchased at a nearby bodega. A former seismologist, she cooks her mother's recipes to earth-shattering effect; her nephew is in charge of baking bread. When they opened two years ago, he taught himself how to bake Georgia's prized carbohydrates, khachapuri and shotis puri — the latter an elongated bread formed along the sides of the toné, a kind of tandoor oven that bakes the loaves upright in six minutes flat. Like everything at We Are Georgians, they're made from scratch and cooked to order.
Khachapuri, stuffed bread filled with varying degrees of cheese, butter, and eggs, might be considered the ambassador of Georgian cuisine. Divvied into seven regional styles, We Are Georgians' versions shine thanks to the dough, which goes into the oven airy and is given ample time to brown. There's the flat, sandwiched variety from Imereti and an impressive, boat-shaped juggernaut from Adjara with an oval marsh of farmer's cheese, melting butter, and an over-easy egg, all of it browned on top and molten beneath. For Svaneti kubdari, the dough is stuffed with shredded lamb. Penovani khachapuri knows no particular region but might be one of this city's great handheld snacks: golden brown and glossy like a croissant, and so named for its multiple layers (the root word, pena, means "layer").
Phone the restaurant and more often than not you'll get Maisuradze-Olivo herself on the other end. She'll recommend ordering ahead of your visit, an uncommon but winning suggestion rooted in the chef's approach of cooking everything to order. Walk-ins should expect a short wait for their food but can bide their time with pours of electric-green tarragon soda — think of it as the O'Doul's of absinthe, boasting notes of anise minus any boozy bite.
Then she'll guide you through your order, recommending dishes based on the number of people in your party. Besides those revelatory breads, savor nutty, musty kuchmachi, a jumble of chewy chicken livers and gizzards chopped and mixed with ground walnuts, thyme, and garlic. A scattering of pomegranate seeds provides a few juicy bursts of tart relief.
Walnuts feature prominently, pulverized and mixed with herbs and roughly chopped spinach or beans for remarkable spreads meant for spooning onto hunks of bread and simmered into a creamy bazhe sauce for boneless chicken thighs. Ojakhuri, whose name translates to "family meal," looks like Peruvian lomo saltado, its chunks of chicken or pork tossed with fried potatoes and sweet peppers. Cover this — or flattened, skillet-roasted chicken tabaka — with liberal spoonfuls of ajika. Stews need no doctoring up, be they verdant bowls of lamb fortified with parsley, mint, dill, cilantro, and tarragon, or chicken chakhokhbili, whose tomato-rich broth is studded with herbs.
Desserts line a large display case that runs the length of the dining room, and include several light and creamy tortes that stack layers of thin spongecake with sturdy buttercream frosting. Our favorite recipe doubled down on honey, the amber sweetener flavoring cake and frosting alike. Maisuradze-Olivo also stirs up dark-purple pelamushi — a gelatinous mound of grape-juice pudding that tastes the way a child must hope Play-Doh does. When we asked what became of the long, chewy ropes of nuts and concentrated grape juice called churchkhela, the chef's response was apologetic: "The woman who was making churchkhela for us, she stopped."
The sign out front is verbose, but above the "We Are Georgian" declaration, its boldest and biggest characters spell out "Brick Oven Bread." Lest you fear you're stepping into one of the many Georgian bakery/cafés bearing that name, look to the small print in the corner. "Giorgi & Aunt, Inc.," it reads, and there could be no more apt description.
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