All eyes have turned to the Republic of Georgia. In March, Newsweek crowned the country Europe’s “new cultural hub,” and the New York Times included Batumi, Georgia’s third-largest city, on its 52 Places to Go in 2019 list. In a feature for The New Yorker, Lauren Collins observed that Georgian food is “the next big thing,” citing a hospitality trend report declaring it 2019’s “Cuisine of the Year.” Georgian wine is becoming a cellar staple, with imports to the United States growing 54% in 2017 from the prior year.
Despite the recent fanfare, Georgian restaurants are nearly absent from the Bay Area. A Google search for the genre yields one: Bevri, in Palo Alto. (Kolkhida, a Georgian street food truck also operates in Mountain View.) Making this dearth more puzzling is the millennia-old practices from which Georgian culinary culture stems. Georgia boasts evidence of the world’s earliest winemaking, dating to 6,000 B.C. Even modern vintners ferment and age traditional Georgian wines in the same way — using large clay vessels, called qvevri, that are buried underground. Wine plays an indispensable role in the much-storied Georgian supra, or feast, characterized by celebratory toasting, song and plates stacked high by the meal’s end.
Local admirers of Georgian cuisine will soon have an opportunity to experience the country’s rich gastronomy. From June 26 through July 7, À Côté, a Euro-Mediterranean restaurant in Oakland’s Rockridge neighborhood, will host a dinner series celebrating traditional Georgian food and wine. À Côté’s longtime general manager, Jeff Berlin, and newly-crowned executive chef, Elaine Osuna, are leading the effort, which will expose diners to Georgian-inspired feasting that Berlin said represents, in many ways, a “pinnacle” of European dining culture.
Presenting the series is no small task, considering particularly the diversity, complexity and relative obscurity of Georgian food in the Bay Area. “We have a very small window” to introduce most patrons to Georgian cuisine, said Osuna, who poured over photos of dishes and recipes to prepare the menu. There’s “so much joy” in Georgian cooking, she wants attendees to really “feel it,” she added.
Osuna, whose tenure at À Côté spans 18 years, became the restaurant’s executive chef this past November. Soon after, Berlin proposed that they put on a series of wine dinners highlighting modern European fare. À Côté’s first series focused on Bulgaria, and now, the pair turns to Georgia.
For some, À Côté’s Georgian-inspired series may come as no surprise. Berlin was among the first champions of traditional Georgian wines in the Bay Area, when he began buying these varieties over a decade ago from Chris Terrell of New York-based Terrell Wines. Since then, Berlin has cultivated a substantial inventory of Georgian wines at À Côté, and developed an expertise in the region.
Berlin, who visited Georgia recently, wears his devotion to the country’s wine on his sleeve — his arm is tattooed with the Georgian word for hangover. “I’ve wanted to do a Georgian project here in the Bay Area for as long as I can remember,” Berlin said. “When Elaine took over, my wheels started spinning immediately.” Berlin knew that Osuna was “the right person” to spearhead the series, given her demonstrated commitment to learning the cuisine and passion for food and wine.
As to the format of the series, patrons can expect a menu featuring seven dishes riffing on the “greatest hits” of Georgian fare. This includes much-beloved khachapuri, buttered, cheese-filled breads with preparations that vary by region. Of the many versions, Osuna and her team will serve Adjaruli khachapuri, which bakes in a runny egg amidst the cheese and butter. Other menu highlights include khinkali, a type of soup dumpling, and lobio with mchadi, a spiced bean stew accompanied by pan-fried cornbread. Osuna rounds out the menu with katmis satsivi, a chicken and walnut fricassee, and mtsvadi chashushuli, a barbecued pork stew served with shotis puri, fresh batons of whole-wheat bread.
The menu also includes items “that aren’t as common,” Osuna said, to provide diners with a comprehensive sense of the country’s offerings. So while khachapuri may be familiar to some, ispanakhis pkhali, a ground spinach and walnut spread, could still be a novel find. Diners may also encounter for the first time ingredients like blue fenugreek, dried marigold flowers and wild mountain herbs, all of which play a special role in Georgian cooking.
Indeed, the locality inherent to Georgian cuisine presented a sourcing challenge for Osuna, who devised her own methods for acquiring hard-to-find items. For instance, tkemali, a typically tart sauce that is ubiquitous in Georgia, required Osuna to acquire green plums. Luckily, she was able to procure the fruit from Blossom Bluff Orchards, an all-organic purveyor located in the San Joaquin Valley. In addition to green tkemali, À Côté will set each table with red adjika, a spicy pepper condiment that brings extra heat.
For oenophiles, the series presents a rare opportunity to sample several Georgian wines in a single sitting. Berlin has compiled a two-page menu for the event, comprising between 25 and 30 grape varieties from the country’s different regions. Those unfamiliar with traditional Georgian wine may be surprised to find some amber-hued styles with earthy tones that more closely resemble a cider or Lambic.
The distinct flavor of these Georgian wines is due, Berlin said, to the extended period that they “ferment on skins,” versus conventional whites, where grapes have little to no skin contact. Longer skin contact also “keeps the wine healthy,” Berlin observed, creating “vibrant, energetic” varieties without the use of additives, like sulfur dioxide. Each bottle of Georgian wine can be considered “its own creature,” Berlin said, in part because the wine from qvevri will taste differently depending on how the vessel is built and maintained.
Berlin’s inventory is likely to impress even Georgian wine connoisseurs. In addition to better-known “muscular” varieties from the country’s eastern region (think Saperavi), the menu will also include lesser-known vintages from Racha, a mountainous region in northwestern Georgia. With “aromatic and floral” notes, these Georgian wines represent a “whole other style” that may “shock people,” Berlin said. If you are looking for an extra kick, À Côté has on hand Chacha, a Georgian spirit made from grape pomace (the solid remains after the fruit is pressed) that some analogize to Grappa.
Beyond food and wine, the series will integrate other evocative aspects of the supra. On certain nights, diners may be encouraged to stack their plates after each course. In addition, the restaurant has tentatively arranged for a performance on July 6 by Kitka, a European and Eurasian-influenced women’s vocal arts ensemble that is based in Oakland. For those interested in learning more about Georgian culinary traditions, Berlin recommended Carla Capalbo’s Tasting Georgia: A Food and Wine Journey in the Caucasus and Alice Fiering’s For the Love of Wine.
As to how diners may react to the Georgian series, Berlin acknowledged that some may love it, others may not entirely understand it and others still may be “consumed by the spirit” and “soulfulness of it.” Osuna added, “I want to have fun. . . and I want people to come in here and have fun.”
Between the pair’s passion and Georgia’s revelatory cuisine, diners will be hard-pressed not to find delight.
À Côté’s Georgian dinner series will run from June 26 through July 7. The restaurant is open 5:30-9:30 p.m., Sunday through Thursday; 5:30-10:30 p.m., Friday through Saturday. Call (510) 655-6469 for reservations.