Tbilisi - the rising star

Fusing ancient traditions and a vibrant multi-cultural history, Georgia’s capital city is the perfect destination for the intrepid food explorer
The Bridge of Peace in Tbilisi
Getty Images
The Bridge of Peace in Tbilisi
July 01, 2019
By Ishay Govender-Ypma

SILK ROAD STORIES

Derived from the Georgian word tbili, or ‘warm’, a reference to the city’s hot springs, Tbilisi has become a popular weekend destination for travellers from the UAE. Frequent, short flights take you to Georgia’s capital city, with its rich and complex history. The country borders Europe’s tallest mountain range, the Caucasus, and this is where the ancient crossroads between Asia and Europe once ran along the mystical Silk Road. Having emerged from an era of Soviet rule, the pace in Tbilisi remains unharried in parts. The influences from multiple conquerors and people of various ethnic backgrounds can be seen in the architecture, numerous churches, and of course, the food. Sliced by the Mtkvari River flowing through it and languishing below the 17th century Narikala fortress, Tbilisi is a perfect destination for a foodie traveller – whether you’re embarking on the journey in a group, as a couple, or solo.

BEST BITES

Khachapuri is one of those Georgian dishes you should not miss and particularly so, the curvy boat-shaped Adjarian khachapuri. Inside these canoe-shaped breads is a mixture of melted sulguni and other cheeses, upon which sit a runny egg and a pat of butter that you must mix vigorously until velvety ribbons form. It’s best to share and enjoy it piping-hot. Try them at the Samikitno chain which you’ll find around the city. (facebook.com/machakhela.samikitno).

The elegant pleated dumplings called khinkali are an art form. Some of the best in town can be found under the Dry Bridge at Zakhar Zakaharich (3 Right Bank, Mshrali Bridge; +995 591 17 40 00). Fillings include potato, beef, cheese and wild mushrooms. Pair them with pleasantly salty Borjomi carbonated spring water from the resort town of Borjomi, spiked with a shot of herbal Tarragon soda.

Try a wide variety of Georgian classics that have been given interesting twists at Café Littera (facebook.com/cafelittera; 13 Ivane Machabeli St, +995 577 14 63 92). It’s located on the lovely grounds of the Georgian Writer’s Union building. In a concealed garden with tables placed under the large trees, Chef Tekuna Gachechiladze serves hearty dishes like lamb with adjika (red pepper paste) with unexpected touches.

MARKETS

Reserve a few hours to explore the 2,000-square metre Dezerter Bazaar (Tsinamdzgvrishvili St.) near the railway station. Named after deserters who sold their arms here in the 1920s, you can expect bushels of pomegranates, spices and herbs like blue fenugreek, dried marigold (the ‘poor man’s saffron’), sheets of home-made fruit leather called tklapi and churchkhela – fat sausage strings of nuts covered in thickened fruit syrup and fermented vegetables like garlic and jonjoli (bladderwort flowers).

INSTAGRAM TIP

Who can resist a sunset view and a snack? For utterly Instagramable and sweeping views of the city, catch the cable car up to Narikala fortress from Rike Park for a handful of dirham (you can also walk from Median – it’s a 25- minute trek, steep in places). Buy snacks and cold drinks from the vendors along the fortress walls, as you catch the sun dipping below the horizon. Pack a little picnic in your backpack (but do not litter). The walk back down is easy.

FOODIE TOURS

Navigating markets, old-school local bakeries and corner stores can be difficult if you’re not fluent in Georgian. Culinary Backstreets will take you off the beaten path, to the spots loved by locals (culinarybackstreets.com; Dhs349 for a full day with food/drinks).

Living Roots founders Ia Tabagari and John Wurdeman are invested in the country’s ethnology and rich cultural traditions. They create bespoke itineraries that revolve around food and history. Contact them for a quote. (travellivingroots.com).

WHERE TO STAY

Rooms Hotel is a four-star hotel, in the Vera neighbourhood, discreetly located on a leafy street. Once a publishing house, the interior attests to this with a plush library lounge with a fireplace, and dark furnishings within rooms with high ceilings. Doubles from Dhs1,000.

Stamba is a five-storey hotel (also in a former publishing house), with the dramatic original structure softened with Art Deco touches. Think gilded bathtubs, dark teal and shimmering chandeliers. The hotel’s café serves ingredients from its “living library” garden and has a chocolatier and coffee roaster on its premises as well. Doubles from Dhs955.

LOCAL KNOW-HOW

Food journalist and tour guide, Paul Rimple says:

The organically grown ingredients make a big difference at Ezo, but I like to come here especially in the spring and summer to sit in the homey ezo (courtyard) and sip on something cool and delicious. You can’t go wrong with anything on the menu. (facebook.com/EZO.Restaurant/)

The food at Salobie Bia is simple, honest and delicious. Chef Giorgi Iosava could go crazy and follow the fusion trend, but he surprises by making subtle touches to traditionally bold dishes. His ghomi (polenta) is made from millet, which is the original recipe, instead of corn. (facebook.com/salobiebia)