I know it’s been a while since my last post, but before I move on to meals I’ve eaten more recently, let me return one more time to Tel Aviv. We sampled many classic dishes during our tasting tour, but one segment of the population of modern day Israel was underrepresented: people from the former Soviet Union. Jews left that country en masse in the 1990s, many of them coming to Israel. We soon set out to rectify that situation by sampling the cuisine of Georgia (home of in Tblisi, not Atlanta) at a surprising, delicious and totally happening restaurant called Nanuchka. Housed inside an old home, the restaurant’s decor is a funky mix of vintage velveteen furniture and collaged tables with antique china dishes and potted palms. The bar is known for being a scene in itself, but Dr. Shakshuka warned that it is not uncommon to have patrons dancing on the bar or breaking plates on any given night. Besides, we had come for the food.
I have to admit that when I think of food from the former Soviet Union, I think of Russian food: pierogies, borscht, stuffed cabbage and lots of potatoes. While I’ve had decent Russian food, I’ve found it heavy and a little bland (something like the food we ate on the Russian airline Transaero, which we took to get to Israel). I blame my one-dimensional view on the homogenization of culture created by cobbling together a country out of many, many, many cultural and ethnic groups. As it turned out, Georgian food was unlike anything I had imagined. Bordering the Black Sea and situated on a strip of land that extends to the Caspian Sea (via Azerbaijan), Georgia offers a cuisine that’s like a blend of that of Greece, Turkey and countries further east like Kazakhstan and Mongolia. How did this translate onto the plate? I will now elaborate.
We started by ordering a bottle of the Tulip Private Label, a Merlot-based blend made by an Israeli winery especially for the restaurant. After that came a beautiful appetizer platter, called phkali, which bore five different vegetarian dishes. Among them were lemony grape leaves stuffed with rice and a delicious beet salad, blended with sour plum sauce. There were thinly sliced roasted eggplant rounds stuffed with a chestnut puree and another, spicier, roasted eggplant dish with walnuts. The crisp kohlrabi salad was delicious; my first time consciously tasting this member of the cabbage family. Finally, there was walnut salad with swiss chard, spices and herbs. Having decided to stick to appetizers and share them family style, we ordered another plate of grape leaves, these stuffed with seasoned mutton and rice and accompanied by a tasty tzatziki-like dipping sauce. Then came a lush green salad scattered with dates and crispy soy nuts.
Our next course was a platter of plump khinkaliâ€” Georgian dumplings, which we ordered stuffed with a combination of goose and duck. These were tender and pillowy on the outside and incredibly moist inside. They came with a slightly spicy tomato-based dipping sauce, which added a nice kick to their velvety richness. We also got an order of lavash, a gloriously chewy bread somewhere between pita and naan, which we used to scoop up the salads and mop up the sauces.
For dessert, we ordered vashlinani: three crispy phyllo pastry tubes, stuffed with spiced stewed apples. This came with a tasty scoop of ice cream. It reminded me of Austrian or French desserts, making it a fitting close to our eclectic meal. As my first experience with Georgian food, Nanuchka successfully imprinted the cuisine in my mind as one that is fresh, vibrant, nuanced and surprisingâ€” a hell of a lot more appetizing than the image that the phrase “food from the former Soviet Union” had previously called to mind.
28 Lilenbloom St.
Tel Aviv, Israel