The VTS went up to Georgia, in fact. Waaaaay up. North of the 401, anyway.
Ever since we found out about this place, it kept reshuffling to the top of our list of places to go next. Aragvi proudly claims on its website to be “the only Georgian Restaurant in Ontario” but I’m not sure what other competition they have nation-wide.
It was exciting to find out about Aragvi, because I’ve had a slowly accumulating interest in Georgian food that began with the wonderful photographs of the American photographer Stephanie Maze in A Day In The Life Of The Soviet Union, originally published in 1987. Maze was assigned to Tbilisi, a matter of genuine concern to Moscow officials who doubted the wisdom of sending a female photographer to the region due to the reputation of Georgian men. Based on one of my favourite pictures of hers, two singing Lotharios barely out of their teens walking down a country road in the spring dusk, wearing Soviet polyester pants and with giant bouquets of lilacs in both hands, elbows slung around each others’ necks, clearly up to no good and looking forward to the night of hunting that lay ahead, Moscow had every reason to be worried.
But the romantic intentions of Tbilisi’s menfolk were not the problem for Ms. Maze: the comments for another picture mention that “[r]enowned for their hospitality, Georgians are frequent feasters….while trying to record family life in the Georgian countryside, the photographer lost many hours (and gained several pounds) at elaborate banquets held in her honour.” As a teenager in 1987 near the end of the cold war, I found the picture above this comment just as interesting as the one of the boys on the prowl: it showed a large Georgian family sitting around a table, eating breakfast in a village kitchen. There were piles of pieces of round, fluffy flatbreads, a different kind of bread with cheese baked on top, a salad made of red beans and walnuts (lobio, I later found out), stacks of fresh cucumbers, plates of exotic greens picked that morning, bowls of thick yoghurt, honey, a third kind of flatbread, cups of tea, a beet salad of some kind, and many other things I couldn’t identify. And this was just breakfast! Wasn’t everyone supposed to be starving in the USSR, or at least standing in line for hours every day to secure their meagre rations from the state? Where did all this delicious looking food come from?
My curiosity grew when I came across a Georgian-inspired recipe in a James Barber book a year later, with notes from the author: “wolves, beautiful women in horse-drawn sleighs, ice and snow everywhere, and potatoes and vodka. You know what Russia is like. A primitive version of North Dakota. It was quite a shock to find that there are light, joyous, sunny dishes in Russia, food made with sun-warmed fruits, and as exciting as any Italian ever imagined.” Then fast forward many more years to a Russian cookbook abandoned by a former roommate called Please To The Table, which attempts to provide equal representation to all the former Soviet Republics but the Georgian recipes quickly predominate because there are so many of them, and because they are just…so…good. I tried several of these, including Lobio and Satsivi, a chicken dish….and sometimes they were quite successful, but sometimes I would only taste a trace of what the dish could be, or was supposed to be. I knew I had to be missing the mark.
Then along came Aragvi, the perfect chance to see what this special cuisine is really like. Georgian food resides at the divine intersection of Persian, Russian and Turkish, although in the GTA it is available from a strip mall at the corner of Sheppard West and Wilmington:
It’s a tiny place, and the proprietress reluctantly parted with a table for us even though there were only two other customers on board at the time. “Reserved” signs roosted prominently on most of the tables, although by the time we left at quarter to ten, none of them were occupied. The decor is rather individual, with napkins folded in the unique “Devil Bunny Ears” style:
The chairs are rock hard, and draped in brown satin. And of course, the disco ball is present and accounted for. Vintage Cranberries were on the sound system when we got there, but after a lengthy period of silence one of the waitstaff noticed and hastily put on a Vivaldi CD. Georgian wine is available by the glass, and the hand that pours it is not miserly. You can have any colour you like, as long as it’s red:
I’m not sure if “Saperavi” is the grape, or the name of the wine, but I’m definitely sure that rams are rams in Georgia by the looks of things (and notice the special script on the label, too: the Georgian language is not written using the Cyrillic alphabet). The wine was on the dry side, a competent and workmanlike wine, very balanced and pleasant. It reminded me a little of a Cabernet Franc. On the food side of things, we started off with Satsivi:
Both were excellent. The Satsivi is chunks of cold chicken in a walnut sauce, but that’s a little like saying Van Gogh’s Crows Over The Wheatfield is a piece of canvas with some paint on it. The dish is served at room temperature, which really allows the flavours, both complex and familiar, to come through. The sauce is rich and creamy from the finely ground walnuts, but not bitter at all which likely means the skins were removed (a tedious process that transforms walnuts into something more similar to giant pine nuts in taste). The sauce has been loosened up with a little yoghurt: it’s not sticky at all in the way ground nuts can be, it’s shot through with spices and if I’m not mistaken, there’s some very finely chopped parsley in it.
The hostess said that they use a particular Georgian spice, or possibly a spice blend called khmeli suneli, which is a Georgian masala involving such exotic ingredients as marigold petals, summer savoury, fenugreek and coriander seeds. It could have been that something was getting lost in translation, but she said it was “like turmeric.” “Like a root?” I asked. “No,” she said, “seeds.” Turmeric seeds? Maybe it was the power of suggestion, but we thought we were picking up a whiff of turmeric in the sauce although the day-glo orange colour definitely wasn’t present. Whatever it was, it was absolutely delicious and very unusual.
The Khachapuri was one of many available breads, freshly baked to order at Aragvi. The cheese component was a simple, salty white village cheese and the bread came out with an egg cracked over the sizzling surface. By the time you have torn off one of the canoe-shaped tips of the bread and worked your way into the centre, the egg has cooked slightly although the yolk runs all over the plate at the point of being broken. I thought this would be weird, but it complemented the cheese and added another not strictly speaking necessary layer of richness to the experience. The bread was crusty (but gave way to soft, fluffy, tearable insides) and very more-ish, and without intending to, we ate the whole thing.
Next came the Chanakhi, described on the menu as “unbelievably tasty veal stew with potatoes, onions, garlic, coriander and eggplant”:
It lived up to the billing, basically a classic beef stew, only better. Meltingly tender chunks of veal, a rich broth golden with onion sweat, bright notes from the fresh coriander and large chunks of eggplant, not a normal part of the North American Beef Stew experience. There were pieces of tomato, but not enough to dominate the dish. Just the thing to have on a chilly April night, sitting right next to the door of a glass-fronted restaurant.
Then, Beef Stroganoff — the choice of the 11 year old:
which are pork and lamb sausages, made by the restaurant. I thought they were going to be rougher, cruder sausages, really elongated patties or maybe something like Cypriot sheftalia which are simple clumps of meat rolled up in fat netting. But they looked like regular bangers, albeit nicely grilled bangers with red onions and a souped up ketchup on the side. They were good, not too densely packed, but not particularly lamby. They came with Armenian potatoes and a salad:
Armenian potatoes are apparently regular fried potato wedges with fresh dill sprinkled on them. Dill was also very noticeable in the simple salad, which was nothing more than tomatoes, cucumbers, red onion and a little lemon/oil dressing but still very refreshing and a nice foil to all the meat. The red onions had been either (a) carefully chosen from a reputable dealer, or (b) rinsed, because their gassy heat and nasal burn was noticeably absent.
Purely out of academic interest, we also ordered the Khinkali:
Khinkali are meat dumplings, and we were really too full by this point to do them justice. They were most prettily pleated and charming, but I did find the dough to be a little thick and tough. I am, however, the ne plus ultra of perogie snobs, and it’s possible that I will just never be able to overcome my prejudices, but I like my dumplings on the thinner and more tender side when it comes to the dough.
We rolled out onto the street, stuffed, satisfied, our eyes opened to something new but not entirely foreign. And with god as our witness, we will never be hungry again.
Aragvi, 832 Sheppard Avenue West (at Wilmington)
$115.00 for three, with abundant leftovers, including tax, tip and two (hefty) glasses of Georgian red wine.