Anyone who knows me, knows of my love for truly divey establishments. There is nothing like eating in a place where you fear for you lives and your health, but you keep going because the food is that good. Under normal circumstances I would never think of eating Georgian food. I’m from the U.S. and no one there is even remotely familiar with Georgian food. I can be truthful and admit that prior to eating at this restaurant, I could not have pointed Georgia out on a map. Fortunately for me, there was someone to lead me to the promise land of food sensory overload. My friend Alan dragged me, practically kicking and screaming, to find these ethnic delights. We exited the metro in the heart Aksaray. For those unfamiliar with the geography of Istanbul, Aksaray is a neighborhood where a number of foreigners live. There is a great deal of lively travel from neighboring countries, and the area does a booming trade in bus routes. Tucked inside of one of these bus stations is Georgian restaurant, that has the tattered charm of a heroine den. It resides inside of a bus station. If I were in the states I would hesitate to eat at an establishment this shady. I would hesitate to eat at an establishment this gritty in most of the countries of the world. Luckily, I was forcefully taken on this adventure, and am all the better for it.
The carpets are tattered as you walk up the stairs, inside of the open air bus station. They once held an intricate ottoman design (I think), but are now caked with the grime of hundreds of boots traveling to and from this location. There is a covered balcony that is covered in what I can only describe as weathered aluminum – the sound of the rain is both deafening and soothing against the rusted metal. There is also a seating area inside which is not air-conditioned. During the summer, you cook as well as the food – and still I return. I can imagine people from Georgia stopping here, looking for a taste of home. I imagine that they get it. While the cuisine if not of my home, it is home cooking all the same. You can literally taste the work that goes into making each and every dish. This is not the 5 star restaurants of U.S. metropolitan areas, this is the heart of Georgia. These are recipes that have been handed down from mother to child for centuries, to arrive at their final destination – in my mouth. They have made a long journey, and I am wonderfully thankful for each step that led to this splendor. The menu is limited to what the chef felt like cooking that day. I usually let Alan order, as the menu is in Georgian (a script that looks like Elvish from the LOTR) and he is more familiar with the cuisine.
We always start with the Lobio, a succulent dish of beans seasoned with a uniquely Georgian combination of spices, topped with onions and cilantro. It is reminiscent of Red Beans and Rice, a dish famous all over the South. Lobio is served with huge chunks of crusty bread, used to dip delicately into the sauce so that not one drop is wasted in the journey from the bowl to your mouth.
We usually also get Ostri, a stew with delicate cubes of beef, served in a savory sauce. Topping this dish are also onions and cilantro making it as beautiful as it tasty.
For our third selection we get one of two dishes Khachapuri or Kinkali – both are delectable treasures that should not be ignored under any circumstances. Khachapuri is basically the Georgian version of a cheese pizza pie taken to expert level. It is cooked on site and comes out of the oven piping hot. It is a wonderment of flavorful perfection. It comes out with brown blisters of cheese that melt in your mouth not in your hand.
Sometimes, if we’re very lucky the Georgian Restaurant is serving Kinkali. This is basically the magical equivalent of the much sought after soup dumpling, famous in New York. Except that Kinkali are huge. The meat inside is raw before the dish is cooked, so all of the juices are captured inside of the dumpling. One bite, and you realize that you are in heaven.
Last but not least, because Georgia is primarily Christian pork is on the menu. That’s right, if you have true cravings for pork products, this is the place to go. In Georgia there is a dish that consists of nothing but salty pork and onions. They do away with all of the pesky vegetables and give you what you really want – flavorful, succulent, pork. While the flavor is amazing, the tenderness of the pork can be though at times, so consider yourself forewarned.