The next time the Underground Gourmet is looking for something new and exciting to eat, we’ll book an appointment at Yana Herbal Beauty Salon in Greenwich Village. That is where Yana and her daughter, Helena, practice their cosmetic art and also, as it turns out, dispense excellent culinary advice.
“I have a hot tip for you,” said Helena the other day. “What is it?” asked the U.G., wondering whether Helena was about to divulge a secret all-natural exfoliant or share a new technique for shaping an eyebrow. “I know a great new Georgian restaurant in Brooklyn.” To say that the comment left the U.G. breathless with excitement would be an understatement. Helena, you see, hails from the Republic of Georgia and, like all members of her tightly knit community, harbors a sense of pride in her native cuisine that puts the most incorrigible French and Italian chauvinists to shame. Georgians are world-class foodies, renowned as much for their distinctive diet as for the legendarily Bacchanalian pleasure they take in it.
A Georgian myth revolves around God tripping over the Caucasus Mountains while on a dinner break from creating the world and his scraps littering the bucolic countryside with the most magnificent food and drink. At some point, God must have been stumbling around the elevated subway somewhere in the vicinity of Bensonhurst or Gravesend en route to Brighton Beach, because that’s where New York’s smattering of Georgian restaurants have taken root, and where Helena’s tip led us to the months-old Mtskheta Cafe.
Nothing about Mtskheta’s dim, slightly forbidding façade portends the gastronomic delights that lie within. The inside, though perfectly comfortable, is no Taj Mahal either: some faux brick here, some faux stone there, a misty-autumnal-landscape mural, and a flat-screen playing videos of folk songs and Georgian rap. It’s also worth noting that the menu at Mtskheta is printed in Russian. Luckily, our affable waiter Andre was not only fluent in English but unfailingly helpful, both in translations and recommendations.
If you’re unacquainted with the pleasures of the Georgian table, here’s a primer: Walnut sauce is to the cuisine as red sauce is to Italian-American, and at Mtskheta (named for the ancient capital city), various renditions of the stuff can be found massaged into a delectable eggplant roulade, puréed into a garlicky spinach dip, and blanketing a toothsome platter of fried chicken. Georgians are artful bakers as well, and while Mtskheta’s khachapuri, or cheese bread, was sufficiently gooey, and the lavash crusty and chewy, we were most taken with the mchadi, or corn bread, which should be ordered with some slabs of squeaky mild cheese that melt when you stuff them inside—a Georgian mozzarepa, if you will. The Georgian palate gravitates to the tart and the sour, represented here in a bracing pickle plate of red cabbage, cucumbers, and green tomatoes, and the sour-plum condiment called tkemali, the ketchup of the Caucasus.
As the temperature drops, you’ll crave soup, and of the two lamb versions on offer, we’re partial to bozbashi, a soothing broth served piping hot, its surface speckled with pieces of lamb fat and cilantro. There’s also a comforting heat in the chicken with garlic sauce, which arrives bubbling away but still crisp-skinned in its clay-pot inferno. An even more incendiary presentation is the kupati, translated by Andre as “Georgian-style sausages on fire”—sizzling beef-and-pork links that he marches into the dining room on a smoking platter as purposefully and ceremoniously as if he were presenting a roasted peacock to some medieval duke. No Georgian feast is complete without khinkali, the neatly pleated oversize dumplings filled with seasoned ground beef and broth. Custom dictates that you blitz the things with black pepper, grab them by their doughy topknot, nibble a dainty bite from the side, and slurp down the broth. Then you eat everything but the part you’re holding onto. “Georgians don’t eat the handle,” says our Black Sea beautician Helena. Don’t worry about breaching khinkali etiquette, though; hospitable folk that they are, they won’t hold it against you.