A month ago, a new Georgian restaurant arrived between Union Square and Gramercy Park, on Third Avenue near the corner of 17th Street. Chito Gvrito is named after a pop song with a title that might be translated as “Robin Redbreast,” the lyrics of which are apropos to this melancholy time:
What makes me sing?
Endless sky the color of an iris flower.
When I’m happy I’m singing,
When I’m sad I’m still singing.
Restaurants from the republic of Georgia were catapulted into prominence a few years back by a single dish, one that features on Chito Gvrito’s menu as well: khachapuri adjaruli. Looking like a boat that has sprung a leak in a cheese lake, it excited the popular imagination and instantly became one of the city’s favorite comfort foods. The soft and flavorful loaf generates its own dip when a raw egg yolk and gob of butter are vigorously stirred into the molten cheese in the middle. Suddenly, Georgian restaurants that had been restricted to Brighton Beach, Gravesend, and Rego Park were popping up in parts of downtown Manhattan.
Now, farther north, we have Chito Gvrito. The deep, narrow dining room is done up in shades of brown, with a bar selling cocktails, wines, and beers on the right and an isolated dining niche in the rear, seating six. Unheated outdoor tables are provided. Two menus prevail, dinner and weekend brunch, each with its own attractions. Both offer five types of khachapuri ($12 to $15), more than most Georgian restaurants. Its rendition of the celebrated adjaruli is one of the best, mainly because the cheese reservoir is deeper, so that mixing in the yolk and butter is easier, and the crisp rim created is great for dipping.
Back in Georgia, there are many more khachapuris than in New York, with each region baking its own version. At Chito Gvrito, the further choices include khachapuri imeruli, with the same white sulguni cheese pooled inside; khachapuri megrelian, much like imeruli, but with extra browned cheese crusting the top; and kubdari, with no cheese whatsoever and beef inside instead. Though the beef is cleverly seasoned with blue fenugreek, you’ll still miss the cheese.
One variety isn’t even offered at well-known Georgian bakeries, such as Berikoni in Brighton Beach, which has a particularly far-reaching menu. Called “khachapuri on the skewer” (who could resist?), it turns out to be a baton of dough sealed at both ends with the familiar sulguni inside, though with no sign of skewers. It’s worth ordering once for its novel shape, though it doesn’t taste different than the imeruli. Anyway, you’ll likely come to the conclusion that khachapuri adjaruli, your first khachapuri love, will always be the best.
Chito’s chef, Lasha Jikia, grew up not in the current capital of Tbilisi, but in Mtskheta, which was the Georgian capital until the sixth century. It’s a center of Orthodox Christianity, with a fourth-century monastery and an 11th-century cathedral. The city is famous for its lobio, a dish of soupy and strongly seasoned red kidney beans. Exercising his chef’s prerogative, Jikia substitutes snow peas, immersing them in a garlicky dressing with fresh mint, making it taste almost like green Indian chutney. I asked the waitress if snow peas were a thing in Georgia, and she replied, “We love them and eat them often.”
Though the menu depends on fistfuls of fresh herbs, including fennel, fenugreek, and mint, garlic usually manages to dominate, and never more so than in my favorite dish, shkmeruli ($26). A whole pullet cut into pieces is first fried, skin on, then simmered in a sauce of milk and minced garlic, enough to make you a bit dizzy with the smell. The stew doesn’t come with any starch, so one is well advised to request the dilled country potatoes and mushrooms ($14) to salvage the precious sauce.
Main courses are divided into stewed and grilled, none of which are available on the brunch menu, which includes various egg dishes and a novel form of cheese blintzes configured as coins rather than tubes. “These are not really Georgian,” a Twitter follower complained.
Among the grilled entrees are the charcoal-grilled kebabs known as mtsvadi. The ones comprising minced beef, pork, and barberry ($20) are a pair of juicy meat torpedos, with the dried berries lending a sweet and tart taste. A final don’t-miss dish is an appetizer known by the rather French name of aubergine rolls, consisting of thin slices of eggplant wrapped around walnut paste. The neat packages are sprinkled with bright red pomegranate seeds.
Georgian wines have been getting better over the last couple of decades, and I have a pair to recommend. Archil Guniava’s Tsolikouri ($56) is made from otskhanuri sapere, a black grape indigenous to western Georgia that has been barely hybridized. Aged in traditional clay amphorae, the result is a musky flavor and lower alcohol content very much in tune with today’s preferences for natural wines. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater: Vaziani’s Kindzmarauli (bottle $42, glass $11) is a red blend with a sweet cab-dominant flavor that’s not offensive in the least. In fact, it goes well with Chito Gvrito’s highly spiced stews and grilled red meat, and obviates the need for dessert. And the pour is generous.