|Photo: Masuike/The New York Times|
09.08.2013. The floor is tile, the tables scratched, the light fixtures ruffled and crimped. On a speaker rests an overgrown sheepskin papakhi, cousin to the astrakhan hat, with wild woolly dreadlocks. Later there will be folk songs on hand drum and phanduri, a long-necked lute. It is a scene you might expect to find on Avenue U, not Avenue B.
Oda House, which opened in May, specializes in Georgian cuisine, a rarity this side of the Brooklyn Bridge. It is not the first restaurant in Manhattan to do so (Pepela, which occupies a more opulent space in lower Midtown, predates it by a few months), but it may be the first to capture the inclusive and at times shambolic spirit of Georgian restaurants in southern Brooklyn.
The chef, Maia Acquaviva, was a plastic surgeon in Georgia before coming to New York and redirecting her knife skills. For a while she cooked Russian food at Mari Vanna, but aside from a few mayonnaise-heavy salads, Georgia shares few culinary traditions with its northern neighbor, leaning instead toward Armenia and the Caspian states. At Oda House, which Ms. Acquaviva owns with her stepson, Beka Peradze, she has returned to the vivid herbs and spices that characterize cooking along the former Silk Road.
You taste utskho suneli — the dried seeds of blue fenugreek, used as a spice almost nowhere else in the world — in lobio, a stew of pinto beans presented in a clay jug with a dimpled cornmeal patty for a lid. Tarragon, believed to have been originally uprooted from Siberia and brought west by the Golden Horde, dominates chakapuli, lamb long simmered with mint and white wine. Here and there flares Georgian saffron, otherwise known as marigold, poised irresolutely between bitter and sweet.
Khinkali, monumental beef-and-pork dumplings, evoke the Tibetan steppe [Tibetan steppe! lol, ha-ha - HN]. You are meant to treat the long, pinched stem as a handle for maneuvering the dumpling into your mouth, then discard it. On a recent evening, my khinkali proved low on broth, suggesting collapsed (if excellent) meatballs in doughy skins.
For khachapuri, the legendary Georgian flatbread with guts of melted cheese, Ms. Acquaviva juxtaposes mozzarella and feta to approximate the taste of sulguni, a pliant, brined Georgian cheese. In a version called adjaruli, cheese bubbles in a crater at the bread’s center, into which, at the last minute, raw egg is dropped. The waitress churns it together tableside, then instructs you to break off the crusty hull and dip. It is too salty, too cheesy and spectacular.
Other types of khachapuri include imeruli, soft rather than crunchy, thanks to yogurt in the dough; chvishtari, sweet with cornmeal and akin to an arepa; and penovani, a bloated envelope of puff pastry. In kubdari and lobiani, two of the lightest (and best) variations, cheese is swapped out for wonderfully fragrant minced beef and mashed pinto beans.
A few dishes register as merely European: salmon baked in béchamel, Cornish game hen in a cast-iron skillet with a sizzling garlic-thyme broth. More exotic is kuchmachi, boiled chicken liver and gizzards draped in an unnervingly pinkish-brown sauce rich with walnuts, pomegranate juice, garlic, cilantro and vinegar.
The bright orange sign outside promises Mediterranean as well as Georgian cuisine. But pkhali — finely minced vegetables thickened with ground walnuts and served in dense ice-cream-scoop mounds — are heavier and more sour than meze. Desserts, mainly configurations of walnuts and honey, have a clearer Mediterranean lineage, save for pelamushi, a genuinely surprising, wine-dark, sweet-sour gelled dome of grape juice.
By the end of a meal, the sight of colossal khachapuris arriving at other tables can be slightly terrifying. But only for a moment: as Pushkin wrote in his famous lament “Upon the Hills of Georgia,” “Once again my heart ignites and loves/Because it can’t do otherwise.”