The Georgian man was already deep into his chacha brandy by the time he sashayed through the disco-lit shadows of the dining room at Georgian Bakery & Cafe. With shot glass in hand, he sidled up to the table of an Armenian pal and gave a speech toasting the friendship and solidarity of the former Soviet republics. They clinked glasses, linked drinking arms, and downed their shots just as the band kicked in with a Georgian-language version of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” and a steamy plate of huge khinkali dumplings landed on our table.
I tried to eat one like a Tblisi expert, grabbing the khinkali by its doughy knob, nipping the pleated side with my teeth, and slurping down a wave of cuminy, cilantro-spiced broth followed by a gulp of the ground meat filling. But, as the khinkali juice glistening on my chin attested, I could find no tidy way to do it.
“I don’t know if that’s hardcore Georgian,” my friend bellowed over the music, “but it sure is hardcore Philly!”
Hardcore Northeast Philly, to be exact.
Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union (and, indeed, for some time before), the Old World threads of its former republics have wound their way into a vibrant new tapestry around the Borscht Belt of Bustleton Avenue. A parade of crispy Ukrainian chicken Kievs bursting with garlic butter, zesty Uzbek kebabs, fragrant rice plovs, Siberian pelmeni, and all manner of caviar-topped Russian blini have been a flavorful fixture in the restaurants and markets there for decades. Often with a floor show.
The presence of restaurants serving the distinctive foods of Georgia, however, has been sporadic until just a few years ago. Since then, not just one, but two bakeries with restaurants attached have opened to feature the spectacular array of oblong khachapuri cheese breads, bean pots, and walnut-thickened sauces that are unique to the cuisine of this Caucasus country, which sent another influx of émigrés our way after its armed conflict with Russia a decade ago.
Owner Tengiz “Tengo” Okropilashvili, who also has built a trucking business since arriving in the U.S. in 2003, says this dream project homage to his roots began well before the opening of his similarly named nearby competition, Georgian Bread, which I reviewed in 2017. But aside from Tengo’s somewhat obscure location, on the backside of a strip mall building across a parking lot from a Home Depot and a NetCost Russian supermarket, the concept here is quite similar, with dining rooms of wood and brick that evoke the rustic homeland, weekend live music, lots of BYO booze, and a showcase on the wonder of Georgian breads.
As baker Giorgi Gvelsesiani proves daily in his task to bake up to 500 canoe-shaped “shoti puri” breads, operating one of the restaurant’s three giant “tone” (pronounced tone-ay) floor hearths is as much a daredevil feat of acrobatics as it is an art of mixing flour with yeast and water. Gvelsesiani must wait until just the moment a spray of salt water turns white against the 900-degree interior to make his move, half-flipping himself over the side wall deep into the dome-shaped furnace to smack the oblong dough against the searing hot stone. After a quick bake in the radiant heat, they’re yanked out with a long-handled pair of hooks.
That salt mist explains the savory crackle I get from this bread’s narrowing, heat-seared edges, which have a shade more flavor than I recall from the loaves I ate at Georgian Bread. Get a basket of shoti on the side; they’re perfect for dipping into the little earthenware pot of stewed “lobio” red beans. One of Georgia’s essential dishes, its simple, rustic puree is kissed by the earthy savor of fenugreek, marigold, coriander, chilies, and dill that make up the core elements of the country’s signature khmeli suneli spice blend.
The shoti may be the table bread staple, but the restaurant dedicates an entire menu section to other dough products, and the bakery also has a stunning array of more elaborate breads. One of the most unusual, the lobiani, is stuffed with a thick layer of mashed red beans like a double-crusted bean dip pizza.
It’s the regional varieties on Georgia’s famously cheesy khachapuri breads, though, that are the real showstoppers here.
The Megrelian-style round looks like a sauceless pizza. But with its thick layer of molten sulguni cheese — which acts like mozzarella but delivers an echo of tang because it is brined — it’s the ultimate cheese bread. And few foods anywhere are more majestic than the Ajarian khachapuri, a boat-shaped oval whose center is filled with sulguni cheese and then topped with a cracked egg. Our friendly server Tatia Tskhvediani added a pat of butter, then mixed the egg and cheese together tableside, transforming its center into a sublimely rich stuffing that looked like a pastry eye beaming with warm yellow sunshine.
It’s easy to fill up on the breads, but they tell only part of the Georgian culinary story. At the intersection of Europe and Asia, where a world of Silk Road spices mingled with one of the oldest wine cultures on earth, Georgians crafted a distinctive cuisine tailored to ingredients that thrived on their landscape, with pomegranates, beets, plums, and especially the crushed walnuts that thicken sauces and purees.
Try the colorful platter of vegetarian pkhali patés made from crushed beets, minced spinach, or pureed green beans blended with nuts and spices. My favorite was the eggplant badrijani, whose thin sheets are fried before they’re rolled up around a flavorful walnut paste bejeweled with pomegranates. The khmeli suneli spices are vividly savory in the background. And though garlic is also an ever-present bass note, this kitchen, led by chef Nino Durglishvili, cooks these dishes with a more balanced hand than I’ve tasted elsewhere.
Okropilashvili, who once operated a roadside restaurant in his native city of Ozurgeti in western Georgia, has brought one of his previous specialties here with ostri, a slow-cooked beef stew fragrant with cumin and paprika spice that brings enough heat to remind me of a good Hungarian goulash. In the stew called chaqapuli, fistfuls of tarragon are braised down with tender cubes of veal.
There was an earthenware crock of fried tabaka chicken chqmeruli simmered in garlicky milk. Stuffed cabbages were plumped with ground beef, pork, and rice. A soul-satisfying bowl of kharcho, a classic beef and rice soup, had its flavor amped by cumin and more blue fenugreek.
Philly’s Georgians, in my experience, don’t have quite the full-throttle zestiness of skewer power that our local Uzbek restaurants do, and put far less emphasis on lamb. But this kitchen delivers a nice grill char around the edges of large-cut chunks of toothsome veal, paprika-tinged chicken, a spiced ground pork and beef variety simply known as “kebab,” and even the meaty slices of sturgeon (an occasional special), that allow the juicy natural flavors of those good ingredients to shine through. Pork kebabs are also a popular option here, but ours were chewy.
More important, the kebabs, which come scattered with sparks of pomegranate seeds and red onions, are a perfect excuse to indulge in gravy boats of Tkemali plum sauce. It comes in two colors: a tangy sweet red variety made from ripe plums, herbs, and cuminy khmeli suneli spice, which also brings a shade of heat; and a zestier green version made from sour unripe plums and fistfuls of herbs, like cilantro, that brings to mind a tart and savory salsa verde or Indian green chutney.
That so many other cultural references come to mind at a meal at the Georgian Bakery & Cafe, even in the dessert case, where the baklava looks more like a thicker pastry strudel than the flaky phyllo Middle Eastern standard, is only a reflection of how Georgia itself evolved a unique character from its natural status as a crossroads for ancient trade. As those traditions reestablish fresh New World roots along Bustleton Avenue, where residents of myriad former Soviet republics gather to toast mutual friendship, and where baker Giorgi Gvelesiani dives deep into the fiery maw of the tone hearth for 500 loaves of daily bread, the diverse character of today’s Philadelphia continues to evolve brilliantly along with it.
11749 Bustleton Ave., 215-969-9900; georgianbakerycafe.wixsite.com/georgianbakerycafe
A trip to the Caucasus awaits in an unlikely location, on the backside of a Northeast Philly parking lot across from a Home Depot. But step inside “Tengo” Okropilashvili’s sprawling restaurant and bakery, and you’ll be surrounded by the genuine flavors of his native Georgia: oblong shoti breads baked in giant “tone” floor hearths, egg-topped khachapuri, spice-scented stews, bean pots, giant broth-filled dumplings and walnut-sauced salads that make this cuisine unique. Come for the live entertainment on weekends when the BYO vodka- and chacha brandy-fueled crowds like to get up and dance their kebabs off.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Breads: shoti; Megrelian khachapuri; Ajarian khachapuri; lobiani; chvishtari corn cake with cheese; cucumber-tomato-walnut salad; beets with tkemali; pkhali platter (minced spinach, beet and bean salad; eggplant rolls with walnuts); beans in pot; chicken chqmeruli; veal chaqapuli; ostri beef stew; tolma stuffed cabbage; kharcho soup; khinkali dumplings; shish-kebabs (veal, chicken, mixed ground meat kebab); Georgian baklava; Georgian “Snickers” cake.
BYOB Vodka and Georgian chacha grape brandy are popular choices. But Georgian wines like red saperavi or white rkatsiteli are also a perfect choice. The nearest PLCB store (Hendrix Center, 11685 Bustleton Ave.) usually has a nice central Europe selection.
WEEKEND NOISE The music is loud. Very loud. So sit next to someone you like! Or come midweek if conversation is necessary.
IF YOU GO Entire menu is available Monday through Thursday, 9 a.m.-9 p.m., Friday through Sunday, until 1 a.m. Retail market closes at 9 p.m. weekends.
All major cards.
Reservations highly suggested on weekends.