Every restaurant critic keeps a few restaurants in reserve. Not just to have something to write about if a disaster occurs, such as a place closing right before press time, but also to forestall a really nice restaurant from being overrun, to be kept secret for tips to friends craving a serene dining establishment. For the last decade, ever since it opened, one of those places for me has been Mtskheta Cafe in Gravesend, Brooklyn. Named after a town that dates to the Bronze Age and was once the capital of Georgia, it’s an intimate space made to look like a partly finished basement — and not in a bad way. A stone fireplace stands at one end, its mantle ranked with bottles of Georgian wine.
The place has two chefs, both born in Georgia, according to our waiter: Nana Naghradze and Kate Wheeler, the latter also part owner. Georgian food has enjoyed an underground popularity ever since around the time Mtskheta opened, based on a general appreciation of its cold composed salads dressed with walnut sauce; garlicky take on fried chicken in chicken tabaka; savory, herb-laced stews; and most especially the cheese-filled flatbread known as khachapuri.
This bread exists in many regional variations. If there’s a sunnyside egg on top and a bread handle, it’s called adjaruli, the one that’s ignited the popular imagination. The version at Mtskheta is eggless, but brilliant nonetheless. Its cheese — a melty white Imeruli — is pressed between two thin layers of dough. The round bread is cut in quarters and arranged on the plate so the salty cheese oozes. I advise you to spring for an $8 bowl of the classic Georgian walnut sauce bazhe, mellow and beige. Anything dipped in it gets better.
New York has lately been pelted with Asian dumplings, many of them, like Shanghai soup dumplings and Tibetan momo, shaped like round purses with a pucker on top. Khinkali (six for $10) are Georgian dumplings that look similar, only bigger and more swollen from the steamer, and stuffed with ground meat that almost gets lost in the massiveness of the wrapper. A couple of people could feast on a serving and need little else to make a meal.
Another surprising feature of Georgian cooking is its appreciation of corn bread. White masa cakes hot and brown from the oven called mchadi ($4) might remind you of hoecakes in African-American cooking, and gorditas in Mexican. The chicken tabaka — a classic dish of a pullet flattened, deep fried, and paved with garlic — is here a little low on garlic, though sufficiently tender and crisp skinned.
A selection of kebabs cooked over charcoal in the manner of Silk Road menus makes a pleasing main course. The lamb ($8) is the smokiest and fattiest, which is why you should order it, but chicken, pork, and lamb breast are also available and worth chewing. Several potato preparations are listed to go along with, the best being young potato with garlic ($10), a giant plateful of small red potatoes that have been boiled skin on, before being deep fried and strewn with garlic and parsley. Garlic lovers will swoon and fall off their chairs at Mtskehta.
Supposedly, the restaurant is famous for its Napoleon, a layered pastry in the French style. I haven’t tried it, because I am always too full after a meal there. You can also can get a bottle of nice Georgian wine, not too sweet, for $22. Pricewise, it’s a very friendly place. And it’s blessedly quiet. 2568 86th St., at Stillwell Avenue, Gravesend