Friday, July 2, 2010

Pirosmani: Stalin Would Approve

Living in New York City has allowed me to expand my culinary knowledge by an order of magnitude on an almost daily basis. Though the curve has started to flatten out lately (yeah right), there are still massive gaps in my food IQ. This includes pretty much all of Eastern Europe, and while I'd been meaning to trek out to Brighton Beach, friends had repeatedly quit on me at the last second (you know who you are).

Luckily, our friend Liz, who joined Steve and I on our dinner at Vinegar Hill House (and is helping us with the more technical aspects of our blog), worked for the Peace Corps in Georgia (so she knows the food and language). Liz insists that Georgian is the best of all quasi-Russian cuisines (be sure not to mix up Russian and Georgian, however, if you don't want to get killed). Her friend Seke joined us. He was in the Peace Corps with Liz, and had just returned from a visit to Georgia a few weeks ago.

After a 30 minute trip on the Q train, we emerged as the unlikeliest posse walking through Sheepshead Bay that night: two Jews, a Korean, a gay Black man, and a blonde vegetarian. Together, we were a rainbow coalition of eaters, or some kind of twisted model UN.

It was only a short walk from the station (and a detour to the liquor store), before we arrived at Pirosmani, or what appears to be Rupocmahu to a non-Georgian speaker.

Inside was a long room with a stage at one end, probably used for the Georgian equivalent of a bar mitzvah (or karaoke more likely). The walls were lined with murals, as the restaurant was named after Georgian artist Niko Pirosmani. Hopefully, Pirosmani was a better artist than this guy-- it's a little hard to see, but check out the massive right arm on the dude in the middle. I once caught a fish this big! I think he also needs to keep the arm elevated for the swelling to go down.

These would be our adversaries for the evening:

Two bottles of extremely sweet Georgian wine, a red and a white from the Teliani Valley. The Nemiroff honey pepper vodka was made in Ukraine and had a thick, sweet taste and a spicy finish that masked the burn of the vodka. I'm proud to say we defeated them all.

Steve and myself wholly relied on Liz and Seke ordering an array of Georgian delicacies. Control freak that I am, this is usually difficult for me, but I trusted them, and they did not disappoint.

After we ordered, a table of four Georgian men sat down across from us. Obviously we wanted to share a drink, so we poured a round of honey vodka for everyone. One of the men raised his glass and began to say a toast in Georgian, which Seke and Liz translated for us. The gist of the toast was that, even all of us from different backgrounds and cultures, can come together over a drink and a good meal. There was also probably some anti-Russian slurs in there as well, but I can't be totally sure.

Soon our food began to arrive. Badrijani, eggplant filled with walnut paste, was a great first impression of Georgian cuisine. The paste was mixed with herbs as well as chunks of walnuts for a nice crunch, and the combination of nuts and eggplants complemented each other well.

Shortly thereafter,  the "big" salata arrived (apparently salad is a word that crosses all types of linguistic boundaries). Chopped cucumbers, tomatoes, parsley and a touch of dill. How can that be bad?

I haven't even gotten to the breads yet. Shoti's puri was awesome. Crusty and buttery, while taming the honey pepper vodka and sweet wine churning in my stomach.

How very artisanal.

Lobio nigzvet, beans with walnut sauce, provided a nice contrast to the other dishes, with the kidney beans tasting better than canned. As we filled up on appetizers, the fifth member of our posse, Cathlin, the blond vegetarian I mentioned earlier arrived. Good thing too, because we needed someone to help us with the vodka and wine.

At first glance, Liz's tarragon soda looked like the classic Hi-C Ecto Cooler inspired by Ghostbusters, but even through my hazy childhood memories that drink tasted much better. You know how recipes recommend using tarragon in moderation? Well this drink craps on that advice. The black licorice aftertaste of the neon green soda was just too much for me.

carbonated toxic sludge

Soon, the khatchapuris started to arrive. The Imeruli khatchapuri looked like a white pizza, but pick it up and you can see the massive amounts of butter buried underneath. Inside is suguni, a cow's milk cheese that tasted like a combination of a weak feta and ricotta. While good, it was hard to eat more than one buttery slice. Seke was disappointed, telling us that he'd eaten much better versions.

Put some crushed red pepper flakes on that!

All disappointment evaporated when the Atcharuli khatchapuri was placed before us. A hollowed out buttery, crusty loaf, filled with cheese and topped with a raw egg and more butter. I don't think you can make something more perfectly decadent than this khatchapuri. What more could you possibly want? What more could you possibly need?

It left me speechless (and I'm a talkative drunk). Best dish of the night. Over two weeks later,  I am still dreaming about it.

Ok, one more picture. Here it is all mixed up.

It was after the khachapuri when the alcohol started to get to me. Khinkali, filled with beef, pork and broth were like Georgian soup dumplings. The goal is apparently to not lose any of the broth. I failed miserably by sending an explosion of it over my plate (blame the vodka).

Things were getting hazy by the time the Mtsvadi, or lamb and pork skewers, arrived. The kebabs had an excellent char and were complemented the sourness of the sweet plum sauce. The sauce also helped the fries, which were a little weak and undersalted on their own.

By this point we were completely full. And drunk. The bill worked out to $40 a person, including our alcohol, which was pretty reasonable to me (although my drunken math may have been incorrect). Before we left, I gave the giant-armed guy in the mural a high-five.

Stumbling back to the subway station, it took longer than necessary to discover that, to get back towards Manhattan, we had to go even further towards Brighton Beach. Keep that in mind if you head out there.

The next morning, I felt surprisingly good. I think my hangover* was ameliorated by the buttery aftertaste of the Atcharuli khatchapuri. Even last night, Steve and I were still reminiscing about that dish. I would travel for hours just for one more taste of that khatchapuri, it was that good. 

Seke and Liz gave me a great introduction into Georgian cuisine, and the delicious food we ate at Pirosmani has motivated me to push further into Brighton Beach in search of more hidden delicacies. 

*In case you were wondering, the phrase for being hungover in Georgian, according to Seke, is "pakhmaliaze var."

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  1. What a great post!! Thanks so much for sharing your terrific photos and your discovery. I really wish people did not stick name "Stalin" everywhere though.
    I'll have to definitely visit Pirosmani next time I'm in NY.
    Please check out my post on Lazy Cook's Khachapuri:

  2. Great post and great pics. Enjoyed tremendously your adventure into the Georgian cuisine. It evoked an urge in me to make a Khachapuri. However, name Stalin, doesnt really reflect well to the entire concept. The rest it just super.