Khachapuri — Georgia’s national dish of molten cheese bread — dates back centuries, but the pizza-fondue hybrid has never been more popular here in New York. The food is in no way new to New York City and has been written about breathlessly since at least 2011, but it’s hit a turning point as of late: The dish has moved beyond traditional Georgian restaurants and onto bar and brunch menus of various cuisines, mutated into very unorthodox riffs. One restaurant is even entirely devoted to the dish.
Like so many trends these days, the rise in khachapuri’s popularity can be partly traced to Instagram. In its most common form in NYC — the item has several varieties, with each region in Georgia boasting its own as the best — khachapuri is served with a tableside component that neatly fits into the kind of excess that plays well on the social media platform: Adjaruli khachapuri is composed of bread shaped like a boat, filled with a pool of melted cheese in which to dip the torn-off crust, and comes with an egg yolk and a hefty pat of butter that’s mixed in tableside. As chef John Fraser, who serves the dish at his American East Village drinking den Narcbar and owns two other Michelin-starred venues, puts it: “Khachapuri is the butt shot of Instagram.” It can always be counted on to rack up the likes.
But the cheesy bread is certainly no trend. Georgian food expert Darra Goldstein, author of The Georgian Feast which will be rereleased in an updated form this October, says though it’s difficult to trace an exact timeline, that khachapuri likely dates back to at least the 12th century, when Georgia went through a renaissance. She connects the origin of the bread to India, as the second half of the word — “puri” — is the same as the Indian word for bread, while “khacha” in Georgian means cheese curds.
While the pizza-like bread has become so endemic to Georgia that the cost of making it is now used as a measure of the health of the country’s economy, it’s only in the 21st century that khachapuri has been getting its due on a more global scale. Instagram has helped by highlighting the dish’s more photogenic qualities, but other factors are at play here, too.
Khachapuri had a global moment during the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, where 175,000 breads were sold at restaurants around the Russian city, which has many similar food traditions as Georgia. NYC also has the largest Georgian population outside of Asia and Europe, counting 5,000 registered immigrants (though the Georgian consulate estimates closer to 50,000 live here), and those immigrants have now raised a generation brought up on American culture and able to translate Georgian traditions in a broader way.
Netty Davitashvili, who owns Cheeseboat in Williamsburg — a name that describes the look of the dish but has drawn ire from some Georgians — thought khachapuri was the perfect food to promote the culture of her native Georgia. She noticed that many of the restaurants here serve khachapuri in a way “that’s a little bit dated” and not as modern as in Georgia today, she says.
“It’s like almost looking back to the 1900s and eating the foods that were served then today,” the 29-year-old says. “I didn’t think it translated very well, especially for the customer who doesn’t know a lot about the culture and food of Georgia. So I thought, ‘Why not just put together a hipster Georgian restaurant?’”
Cheeseboat is the result of that notion, where Davitashvili’s mom is the chef and uses her family recipe to create a dozen riffs on the classic adjaruli khachapuri for versions with bacon, meatballs, mac and cheese, and other combinations using traditionally American ingredients. (And yes, the hipsters are flocking, with 2,571 Instagram location tags since the restaurant opened in September 2016.) Though these fillings are completely unconventional, what Davitashvili is doing is inherent to the origins of the dish.
“Each region in Georgia has its own very distinctive style so the fact that American restaurants are riffing on it I think is really great and sort of in keeping with what Georgians do,” Goldstein says. “I don’t see that as heretical.”
Barbounia, a Mediterranean restaurant in Gramercy, takes this innovation even further, serving an entire khachapuri menu at brunch with options like a take on a croque monsieur with Gruyere cheese, ham, mozzarella, and fried egg. It’s now the most popular item on the menu, chef Amitzur Mor says, with 70 to 80 khachapuris selling every brunch.
“It’s such an awesome dish, but we didn’t want to do it traditionally. I cook Israeli cuisine, which is a mishmash and fusion of everything, anyway,” Mor says. “Israel is like America in that everything we do in Israel is a mix of different cultures and cuisines. It’s with the spirit of the restaurant because we do a lot of fresh-baked breads, and this was just another part of the evolution of our flatbreads.”
Likewise, at Narcbar, Fraser’s version recategorizes the dish as ideal drinking food for a completely inauthentic take that uses fresh cheese, sheep’s milk feta, and mozzarella in place of the traditionally used imeruli and sulguni cheeses. Fraser began playing around with the food after eating it years ago and thinking it was perfect drinking fare.
“The form of a khachapuri is so cool. When I first ate it I was like, ‘What the fuck is this?’ I remembered it for a really long time, and as we started looking through images and inspiration [for Narcbar], I was like, ‘What about that thing?’” he says.
The result of all these newer takes is that khachapuri has never been more prominent in New York. Plenty of restaurants have long been serving it in its traditional form, like Georgian Dream in Bay Ridge, which Eater critic Robert Sietsema considers the city’s best version. Some might say that the newer versions are a form of appropriation, but Georgian Dream owner Besik Petriashvili says he doesn’t fault people who don’t stick to tradition. Georgian consulate worker Giorgi Koguashvili agrees, saying it only helps promote Georgian cuisine as a whole.
“If you package anything right, you can sell it,” Davitashvili says. “I knew exactly who I was targeting — which was my friends — and it worked.”