Four of us were hiding from the burning sun around two in the afternoon at Tamada (“Toastmaster”), a new Georgian restaurant in Sheepshead Bay, one of only three in the city. Raked by ocean breezes, the front door kept eerily swinging open. The walls displayed animal pelts, jeweled daggers, and the compulsory painting by famed Georgian artist Niko Pirosmani, showing fur-hatted dudes at a banquet holding their wine glasses aloft in a toast.
Looking like a giant Salvadoran pupusa, the khatchapuri ($8) was spectacular. When we cut the bulging flat bread with a knife, salty and buttery suluguni cheese oozed anemically from the wound. As an additional appetizer, we’d requested “lamb pastrami,” wondering what the hell it would be, but the waiter shrugged that they were all out of it. Then fate took a hand, and we ended up ordering one of the strangest dishes we’d ever tasted. It had the intriguing name of phalli—the Greek plural of “penis.” Would it be boner-like?
Georgian food can be wonderful, influenced by Turkish cuisine on the one hand and Central Asian on the other, but having many unique characteristics of its own. The former Soviet republic of Georgia—the home of Joseph Stalin and millions of other humongously mustachioed gentlemen—is located in the Caucasus Mountains between the Black and Caspian seas. Georgians were the prototypical Caucasians, according to 19th-century European anthropologists seeking a scientific justification for their racism: buff and vigorous mountain-climbing rustics who subsisted mainly on cheese, walnuts, fruit, and wild game.
When the phalli arrived, it turned out to be a dense and damp salad of bitter wilted greens (the menu said spinach, but it tasted more like mustard greens) stuck together with a dressing of ground walnuts, raw garlic, and herbs. Other cold appetizers featured a similar dressing, including eggplant roll mops (bakrazhan, $9) that stood on the plate like nuclear-reactor towers, and kidney beans that were unusually firm and fresh-tasting. They clearly didn’t come from a can.
Timid diners and lovers of barbecue will order the charcoal-grilled kebabs as their entrée, presented unskewered with house-pickled vegetables. Lamb rib ($9) comes in formidable fatty chunks. While the circular homemade sausage called kupatta sounds interesting and arrives nicely charred, it turns out to be dull compared with the lula kebab of ground lamb laced with onions. Garlic-strewn chicken tabaka is a Georgian standard often found in Russian restaurants; at Tamada, a Cornish game hen is used instead of a small chicken, maximizing the effect of the crispy skin on a bird that looks like it was flattened by a Soviet tank. But if you really want to delve into the mysteries of Georgian cooking, choose chackapuli ($12), which demonstrates the cuisine’s luxuriant use of herbs. Deglazed with white wine, the veal stew swims in a verdant sauce that’s mainly fistfuls of licoricey tarragon. After you’ve picked the bones clean, upend the plate and drink the broth, as Georgians do.
And don’t miss the marvelous fries. Cut from quartered small potatoes and served as a separate course between appetizer and meaty entrée, they come heaped with fresh dill and sautéed mushrooms. You won’t ever be satisfied with normal french fries again.