It was nearly a decade ago that khachapuri adjaruli hit the foodie world like a ton of bricks. These freshly made boat-shaped loaves had a reservoir in the middle awash with a luxuriant amount of melted cheese. As the steaming bread was served, the waiter cracked an egg on top and dropped on a pat of butter. Most places, it was up to you to vigorously mix them together before diving in. Dipping gobbets of torn bread in the molten cheese became a quintessential New York dining experience.
At the time, most of the places you could get this bread were around Brighton Beach, but gradually, good Georgian restaurants opened up in Manhattan, too. Oda House (2013) and Old Tblisi Garden (2014) were two of the first, and by spring, 2019 we had Chama Mama, which facetiously means “eat your father.” It was the most ambitious so far in any borough, with a large wine list of Georgian bottles, and a range of fresh herbs and lesser-seen vegetables.
Following the restaurant opening locations on the Upper West Side and Brooklyn, I decided to return to the original — four years after my first visit to find out whether it’s still good.
The restaurant is located on the southern edge of Chelsea at 149 West 14th, near 7th Avenue. The premises is serpentine, in which a diner can traipse past a bar, around a clay oven in a windowed room that is the centerpiece of the décor, along a long hallway with tables, to an L-shaped back room of substantial size. Beyond that lies a glorious back yard with potted plants, which wasn’t open when I originally visited.
As a contrast to the early days when the restaurant was often half full, the place was mobbed when we arrived at 6:30 p.m. on a Tuesday evening without a reservation. Luckily, there was a table available in a corner of the backyard. The menu has changed in the intervening years, with more appetizers and snacks and a wine list that has doubled its number of natural wines and curtailed the semi-sweet reds.
The khachapuri adjaruli ($18) was as good as ever, with a little less bread and more cheese, I thought. After cracking the egg and tossing on the butter, the server grabbed a couple of forks and started furiously mixing the melted cheese. In a piece of theater, he raised a cheese mass above the table with tendrils of melted imeruli trailing down, before he dropped it back into the bread and continued stirring. We noted that there were six other types of freshly made Georgian breads available, including one with mashed beans instead of cheese — vegans take note.
Then the small plates began to arrive. We’d ordered three, which included a Georgian salad ($17) made with heirloom tomatoes at the peak of ripeness, tossed with purple basil in a very light sunflower oil dressing, one of the best salads I’ve eaten this summer.
The pickle plate was glorious, furnished with a surprising assortment that featured herbs, mild chiles, cabbage, white eggplant, cukes, and ekala — a stemmy vegetable with a red tinge. We were reminded that pickles are often a highlight of a Georgian menu, because what could go better with natural wine than puckering pickles? Speaking of wine, we were drinking a Kardanakhi Estate Rkatsiteli ($64), a natural wine that had been aged in a qveri, a tapered clay jug. The wine was sour, dry, and fruity, in that order, with a beautiful amber color.
The third dish was cauliflower in bazhe sauce ($24), which seemed like an appetizer, even though it was listed among larger dishes. It consisted of roasted cauliflower in walnut sauce, which we sopped up with the fragments that remained from the khachapuri. The highlight of our meal was a pork and beef kebab that was grilled to succulence then wrapped in a warm lavash, regrilled to crisp the flatbread, and sprinkled with sumac. So massive was the skinless sausage that it satisfied all three of us — and left no room for dessert.
I threaded my way out of the restaurant, feeling like it was better than it had been a few years back, with more verve on the part of the restaurateurs, sterling ingredients in the recipes, and a carefully honed wine list that’s one of the best reasons to visit.