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Poliphonia: A Reason to celebrate

Updated: Sep 5, 2023



I want to say that like so many first meetings in Georgia, I met John Wurdeman at a supra, but the truth is I met him a couple hours before we sat down. Someone had fetched the local American to come translate and show us around. It was the summer of 2001, I had only been in Georgia for a couple weeks and tagged along with an American named Mark who had been invited to a dinner date in Signaghi by its mayor and the governor of Kakheti. They were looking for some western financing to restore the dilapidated House of Culture and Mark, representing his new and ambiguous “art bridge” NGO may have meant well, but he had less access to money as Signaghi had to water back then. We certainly did not deserve the table they decorated for us.


Long-haired, bearded John was one of those fictitious characters who arrive in some forgotten third-world backwater and go native. In this case it was in a crumbling. fortified 18th century town of stone and tile in a corner of Kakheti overlooking the majestic Alavani Valley. What Signaghi lacked in basic infrastructure it made up for in rustic beauty with a heartbeat skipping view. For a painter, its appeal was obvious and in 1996 after arriving from art school in Moscow, John dove in head first. He bought a house, learned the language, married a local folk singer, was teaching art to kids in one of the passable rooms of the culture house, and beginning renovations on what would someday be Pheasant’s Tears restaurant but for now was his studio.


Twenty-two years later, we’re at a table together again, but this one is in Tbilisi’s Mtatsminda neighborhood and John is no longer the Kurtz of Kakheti but a leading figure in Georgia’s burgeoning gastronomic scene. Kakhetian vintner, Gela Patalishvili recruited John to help him make wine which they named Pheasant’s Tears and started to bottle in 2007, being among the vanguard of Georgia's natural wine movement. He became part of the original 6-man collective that in 2010 opened Tbilisi’s first wine bar, Vino Underground, and he travels around the world promoting Georgian natural wine and everything that goes with it. When food and travel writers drop into Georgia, John is their go-to man, a muse for Alice Feiring’s book, For The Love of Wine, and fixer for Carla Capalbo’s, Taste of Georgia.


As a restauranteur, John’s Pheasant’s Tears in Signaghi was one of the first kitchens to veer off the well-worn path of “traditional” Georgian cooking and his vegetarian Crazy Pomegranate, located in his Tibaani vineyard, was among Business Insider’s 28 best, most remote, under-the-radar restaurants in the world. In 2013 he and Luarsab Togonidze launched Azarpesha and then opened Poliphonia in 2016. John has settled Poliphonia into a new location in the ground-floor of an apartment block next to Vilnius Park. Across the street, tourists line up to take the funicular up the mountain.


“Beer or wine?” he asks. The natural wine zealot also makes craft beer at his Lost Ridge Inn brewery, hotel and “dude ranch” near Signaghi. We start with a snappy acacia saison to cut the heat and humidity and set the groove with a plate of house-fermented broccoli stems, beets, cauliflower and kimchi.


The original Poliphonia took over the old Shavi Lomi site in Sololaki then moved to Vake a few years later and became a kind of mini food court, with a pizza joint, taqueria (where they nixtamalized their corn!) and a counter serving old Poliphonia’s greatest hits, along with John’s curated wine list of local and international natural wines. Today’s incarnation is something like a casual wine bar - slash - restaurant that encourages guests to kick back, uncork and dig into many dishes you won’t find anywhere else. “Drinking-friendly food,” John calls it. Jonjoli tempura is a case in point.


“I was inspired by deep fried dill pickles,” he says with a straight face.

Jonjoli’s English name is bladdernut, a word that elicits blankness from anyone who asks. An unappreciated fruit everywhere else in the world, here, it is typically pickled and served with an assortment of pickled peppers, green tomatoes, cucumbers, and garlic bulbs. Some add the fresh flowers to salads, or rinse the brine and toss the buds with cold-pressed sunflower oil, red onions, cilantro and spices like blue fenugreek, coriander and marigold. I’ve had it as a caper substitute with trout tartare but never imagined I’d be dipping deep-fried jonjoli into a red wine aioli and popping these crunchy bits like popcorn. “Did you say fried pickles?”


John has been a mentor to many aspiring winemakers and gastronomes who have stumbled into Georgia, like Tomoya Takahashi, who came here to learn all about Georgian food and wine so he can open up his own joint in Japan someday. Some chefs come to Tbilisi for several days to “learn” about the local cuisine so they can replicate it back home. Tolmoya, however, is on something like a five-year plan to not just "learn" about the food, but how to express himself through it. Poliphonia’s kitchen is his canvas.


“We were talking about making some kind of spring rolls and came up with this,” John says, anticipating my reaction with wide eyes. I take the fat spring roll, dip it into a jammy habanero sauce and am transported somewhere between Guria and Mexico via Tokyo. Adjapsandali is a polyphonic peasant stew of vegetables, akin to Ratatouille, and is also a synonym to "mess." In Tomoya and John’s hands it is anarchy. They rolled it into a tortilla-sized skin of sulguni cheese, breaded and deep-fried it. The sweetness and the heat round off the escapade. I’m humming.


John talks about keeping waste to a minimum, a policy every good chef and kitchen manager employ. This usually means reinventing last night’s dinner into today’s daily special and saving vegetable scraps for stock, but Georgian cuisine is less accommodating to these methods, as it is less stock-based and all about fresh ingredients. After forking bites of a refreshing trout ceviche, John urges, “You have to try the trout head soup.” It brought me back to childhood fishing trips with my dad and brother, except instead of eating a fresh river trout off an iron skillet, I was slurping it off a spoon.



John uncorks a 2016 Binner Riesling from Alsace. He says European natural wines are becoming increasingly popular among locals. Their 75 to 150 lari prices here aren’t that different from the prices of Georgian wines at local restaurants.


“Do you consider yourself a winemaker?” I wonder aloud. Pheasant’s Tears is his label and he is recognized by most people as a winemaker, but making wine requires the kind of physical commitment I imagine a globetrotting, bon vivant, restauranteur, wine bar-owning painter cannot manage. “Gela,” he affirms has always been the winemaker. John gives input in the cellar, helps in the vineyard, runs the business end and is the impetus for the winery’s growth. They have recently acquired vineyards in Meskheti, southern Georgia, a wine region only now beginning to get revitalized after centuries of devastation and neglect.


It’s hard to believe it’s been over 20 years. Georgia is no longer the post-Soviet basket case we both fell in love with for its gutsy genuineness and surreal otherworldliness. From painter and supra translator, John Wurdeman has also become an entrepreneurial epicure and natural wine guru by pursuing his passions and tapping into what he adores most about this crazy beautiful country where his life, he manifests, “is a daily celebration.”


 

Poliphonia

ჭონქაძის 29/29 Chonkadze St, Tbilisi

Wed - Sat: 12pm -12am

Sunday 10am - 12 am (Mexican brunch!)

Closed Monday & Tuesday

+995 577 78 62 68









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In a world where authenticity is often elusive, John Wurdeman's story is a shining example of someone who has not only found his place but has also helped redefine and celebrate the rich cultural tapestry of Georgia. Here's to John and his daily celebration of life in this "crazy beautiful country"! Cheers!


Femi.

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Paul Rimple
Paul Rimple
Sep 08, 2023
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Aba ra! I'll drink to that!

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