Tastes Like a Zugdidi Wedding: Qartuli Restaurant
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Last week I walked through the revolving door at the Ambassadori Hotel and was greeted by an attractive hostess who called me “sir.” I turned around to make sure she was not addressing some distinguished gentleman in a suit and tie instead. I don’t often visit local hotels unless I have a business meeting or am attending a press event or banquet. But I had heard good things about Qartuli, this hotel’s classic Georgian restaurant.
The Ambassadori Hotel in Tbilisi is an independently-owned five-star hotel a stone’s throw away from the Mtkvari River on the edge of the city’s Old Town. First established in 2004, it has grown with the city and its burgeoning tourism industry, starting from a humble 7 room boutique to be a 121 room grand hotel with a casino and three restaurants today. Last year when Russia invaded Ukraine, the Ambassadori set aside 20 rooms for Ukrainian refugees.
If you hope to find Mexican potatoes and Caesar Salad on the menu you will be disappointed. This is traditional fare prepared by Dona Tsulaia, a self-taught Megrelian chef from Ochamchira in what is now Russian occupied Abkhazia. Megrelians are the people of Samegrelo in western Georgia and are famed for their talent in the kitchen. Dona has two sisters also cooking for the Ambassadori in Khachreti and Goderdzi (another sister works in the hotel’s finance department).
George Triashvili, the floor manager, was my server and recommended a 2019 Rkatsiteli by Marbano, a label from Bolnisi in the Kvemo Kartli region, which is also where archeologists discovered the oldest traces of winemaking in the world. It is a remarkable wine region making a comeback and this bottle was a medium-bodied delight, well-balanced with hints of apricot and fresh herbs.
A good way to check a restaurant’s commitment to freshness is by ordering the ubiquitous cucumber and tomato salad, kitri-pomidori, although it is really unfair to do this at the end of February. Qartuli peels the tomatoes and douses the salad in aromatic Kakhetian sunflower oil. I hardly noticed tomato season was months away.
Pkhali is a vegan’s dream dish, a pate of boiled vegetables, ground walnut, coriander, garlic and onion, but to be honest, I prefer looking at it more than eating it. The bright green spinach, providing it’s not overcooked, and the loud red beet root are gorgeous on the plate, balled up and garnished with pomegranate seeds. But pkhali is often dense and bland or the balls are vinegar grenades. You eat it to be polite or because you know it’s healthy; atonement to the slices of khachapuri you keep shoveling onto your plate. Qartuli’s pkhali is a lovely light and fluffy surprise all phkali should aspire to be.
I never really enjoyed eggplant until I moved to Georgia, thanks to nigvziani badrijani, eggplant stuffed with walnuts. The ingredients are pretty standard, yet everyone makes it differently. I don’t care if the rolls are dripping in oil, overloaded in garlic or under-stuffed. As long as they’re fresh they always elicit moans of ecstasy from me. Like her pkhali, Dona goes for the fluffy touch. Her badrijani melts in your mouth.
Gebzhalia is an exhilarating lactose-rich rush of sulguni cheese rolls stuffed with khacho, or cottage cheese, swimming in a minty bath of sour cream. If it is not made by Megrelian hands, then it will only be something like gebzhalia. Dona makes her sulguni on-site and serves it warm.
Main courses reminded me of a Megrelian wedding supra, or feast, in Zugdidi. Maybe because the kupati, spicy pork chitterlings sausage, actually come from there. Elargi is a peasant dish of polenta and sulguni cheese. Legend has it that after a supra, noble folks would clear the table and feed their servants the leftovers. Sulguni and ghomi, the polenta, would get tossed in the same bucket and cooked up together. It is unsurprisingly filling but plays off the spicy kupati well. Although curious about Dona’s shkmeruli, an intrepid garlic chicken from Racha and one of my favorite dishes, I stuck with the Megrelian theme and ordered beef kharcho, a gutsy stew thickened with ground walnuts and tomato.
At the Ambassadori, there is also a pan-Asian restaurant, Mozaiko and an international dining room, A T Kitchen, upstairs that are on my bucket list. Quartuli is a traditional hotel restaurant that is perfect for guests who love to dive into local cuisine when they travel. It provides an excellent introduction to classic Georgian cooking with VIP service. For locals like me, dining at Qartuli is like taking a Georgian holiday in my own city.