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Sure, most Brighton Beach restaurants serve up a handful of Georgian favorites like chicken tabaka and kidney-bean lobio. But since Cafe Pearl changed hands two years ago, we haven’t had any full-bore Georgian places in town. Welcome Tblisi, named after the Central Asian republic’s capital city, and turning the tables by offering only a smattering of Russian dishes among the nut-stuffed, fruit-sauced, herb-rife, and grilled glories of Georgia. The narrow room sports a wraparound mural in a quasi-impressionist style in which the archangel Michael ascends from a mountain and peasants toast each other wearing conical hats.
The novelty of Georgian cooking is apparent as you begin your meal with cold dishes. Satsivi ($8.99) smothers chicken pieces in a puree of crushed walnuts, garlic, fenugreek seed, and onions sautéed just long enough to give the sauce its golden hue. The flavor makes even stone-cold poultry taste fantastic, and you’ll spot a serving on nearly every table. Constructed like Japanese maki, cabbage rolls ($5.99) are even more delicious, the pickled wrapper crisp and the ground-walnut filling amplified with loads of cilantro and raw garlic. Eggplant comes thin-sliced, grilled, and folded over the same pungent amalgam.
Hot soups are also popular, including Central Asian standards like harcho and hashi, in addition to the uniquely Georgian chikhirtma (“chicken with eggs soup,” $3.50), an impossibly rich broth thickened with egg yolks and zapped, once again, with cilantro and garlic. But the best starter is khachapouri ($5.99), a round flat loaf of bread stuffed with white cheese and eggs beaten together. The dough has a rubbery consistency like the filling, and tastes faintly of English muffin.
Spring brings a flush of herbs to the meadows and hillsides of the Caucasus, most prominently fenugreek, scallion, sorrel, mint, dill, savory, and tarragon. Several are showcased in the wonderful chakapuli ($9.99), an elongated casserole of lamb chunks cooked to tenderness with herbs that retain an intense green color and a surprising firmness. Though boneless, the meat is not lean, with fat and wobbly integument making the dish very rich. Another favorite is chanakh, stewing baby eggplant, tomato, potato, a veal chop, and whole cloves of garlic into a savory mush.
Unfortunately, Tblisi has no toné—the open-topped clay oven of Georgia—so there’s no homemade deda’s puri (“mother’s bread”). But the round Uzbekistani loaves dotted with sesame and black nigella make a fine sop for the soups and saucy main courses. As you’d expect at a Central Asian restaurant, many entrées rely on the charcoal barbecue. King of kebabs is lulya ($8.99), a pair of lamb forcemeat cylinders laced with onion, perfectly flamed until moist, warm, and pink in the middle, and served on a bed of glistening fries with a brine pickle. Thinking it must be tongue, we ordered “lingual—Scotland style on the grill” ($12.99), and eagerly awaited the outcome. In sailed three perfectly roasted quails, the burnished skin deep brown and cloaked in a sweet pomegranate sauce. Pomegranate must be one of Scotland’s best-kept secrets.