I have a hard time separating immigrants from their food. When my conversation teacher in St. Petersburg announced in September of 2006 that Russian officials were implementing the deportation of Georgians in Moscow, my thoughts turned to Mexico and the inane wall being debated by the U.S. Congress.
The comparison wasn’t perfect, but it stuck because I had already lumped Mexico and Georgia, along with Turkey and the Halal nation, into a broader category of immigrant soul – the type that can pervade the taste buds of entire countries without a corresponding lick of civic respect. I wondered if the jingoists in our government would ever be brazen enough to attempt to force tequila and tacos into the black market as Russia had with Georgian wines. I also wondered if Russian society would ever reach a valley of assimilation as deep as the Jack-in-the-Box Taco.
First, though, I made a note to myself to pay a visit to the Georgian cafe on Nekrasova. Like the shawarma stand near the university and even the pizzeria on the Fontanka, Georgian restaurants represented to me the comfort that immigrant food offers wherever I might be looking for a common thread of culture.
It’s this aspect of New York that has held my affection long after I’ve gotten over its frantic bubble of a lifestyle. Never have I experienced immigrant food so plainly accessible, so wonderfully varied and so openly accepted by the communities that intersect at its counters and carts as I have as a New York resident. And never have I been able to ask more than twenty friends out to dinner, then find ten of them — some at the expense of an hour-plus commute — at the door of a totally foreign dining room, ready to discover what makes Georgians such god damned good cooks.
I can thus thank the insatiable appetite of my fellow food bloggers and the solid cooking of South Brooklyn’s Pirosmani for this fortune of a good meal, the latest in a series of informal gatherings I’ve put together over the past year. Named after the Georgian painter whose works may provide a motif for New York’s few Georgian restaurants, Pirosmani captures the hearty, home-cooked qualities of Georgian food I remember from my limited tastes of it in Petersburg.
We started our night with two bottles of Georgian wine – not only does Pirosmani present a full menu at bargain prices, it has no shame in admitting that its house red is not nearly as good as the selections available at the liquor store across Avenue U. Our waiter encouraged us to run out for a couple bottles and opened them free of charge.
A note about Georgian wine: The semi-sweet reds are one saccharine sip away from Manichevitz, and the sweet reds are something I have yet to accept as a valid gamble. The semi-sweet kindzamarauli that ended up being dominated by Kwan and me was more or less devoid of structure – an easy-going wine, save the cringe of residual-sugar-shock it forced upon my tongue when I took too liberal a sip. This means little to a man who has happily quaffed box wine on certain streets, but those who expect a bit more complexity in their vino would be better off at the “dry” shelf.
From the moment Pirosmani’s house bread (sadly, not free, but a steal at $3 a plate) hit the table, I know we were dealing with a place that respected the basics of food. Served fresh, each rustic round had crusty, salty edges and a hot, fluffy body begging for a smear of butter.
The restaurant’s appetizer and salad menu was extensive, but we decided to stick with a second order of this delicate construction after our first bites. Thin slices of eggplant, roasted, wrapped around a nutty, creamy walnut paste and served chilled, made for a sweet-and-savory refresher in stoking hunger.
Muzhuzhi (pickled pigs’ feet) were an equally pleasing appetizer. Cooked, then lightly brined in vinegar and garlic and served under a snowfall of cilantro, the meat on these trotters was robust in flavor and tender enough to dodge the rubbery nature of its own skin-heavy structure.
Khachapuri, the visa-worthy prize of Georgian food as far as I’m concerned, is the cuisine’s sweeping, savory answer to pizza, pita and vegetarianism. Pirosmani cooks three common variants of this Georgian cheese bread. Mengrelskie (left, baked) and imeritinskie (right, pan-fried) are both soft, doughy, and filled with a ricotta-like filling that oozes out readily when the discs are sliced. Baked atop the crust is a layer of suluguni, Georgia’s more flavorful form of mozzarella.
Adjarskie khachapuri (listed as Adjaruli on the menu), shaped into a tender kayak of self-contained fondue, compounds the richness of standard cheese bread with a baked egg and a stick of butter. After blending all three in the center of the loaf, we took turns tearing off chunks of the fluffy bread boat (with even more suluguni melted inside) and dipping them into the mixture. To say that this was a favorite is a forgone conclusion.
Our single order of lamb shashlik (kebab) was the only unmemorable dish of the evening. Dry and flavorless, the under-seasoned and over-cooked skewer of meat weren’t nearly as good as the grilled pepper, pickled cabbage and diner fries that accompanied them. Next time, I’ll opt for other forms of lamb.
Georgians are no strangers to stew, and this beautiful chanakhi (lamb stew with vegetables) offered all of the flavor that our lamb kebab had missed. Another favorite of the evening, it was robust in every way. From the balloon of bread baked onto the top of the bowl to the bright tomato peeking out from inside to the fatty chunks of lamb rib blending with an assortment of vegetables to create a wholesome meal, Pirosmani’s stew was all things hearty.
The restaurant’s $18 platter of fried potatoes and mushrooms showcased another side of simplicity. Each thinly-sliced wedge of potato was nicely crisped, tossed with similarly fried oyster mushrooms, and seasoned with salt, garlic and that perennial Russian standby to joyous effect. The mushrooms, retaining a moist, meaty spring and crispy, bacon-like edges, were especially tasty – if a shortcut were being taken here to rip off diners, I wouldn’t be able to spot it.
Proving that restaurants have a rightful role in showing home cooks how the most basic things are really meant to be done, Pirosmani’s ukmeruli (fried chicken in garlic sauce) hit our table steeped in a broth bubbling in butter and garlic. Each piece of the whole bird within was seared to a holy golden brown, and each bite of its crispy, moist and flavorful flesh was nothing less than fantastic.
As we took turns dipping discarded potato wedges into the consecrated pools of fat and flavor that lingered in that dish at the end of the night, I thanked the Maker that the idea of deporting a food would never make it past the $15 tab we would pay for this king’s ransom of immigrant cooking. The Russian and English scripts that joined Pirosmani’s Georgian marquee seemed to agree. The forces of politics and prejudice may continue to pit people against another over the sharpest of stakes, but at this table the idea that we could celebrate one culture’s place in another was revered.
If cheese bread this good isn’t made for breaking, I don’t know what is.
2222 Avenue U
Brooklyn, NY 11229