Zala: new Georgian cuisine in a stylish atmosphere
In the heart of the old Vera neighborhood you can find Tamar Chovelidze street, best known by locals as Belinsky street. Here you can experience a clear mixture of old, traditional life and hip, new trends. This big shift to a newer, modern feel started in 2014, when chic designer hotel ROOMS opened its doors. Gradually, the patchwork of simple fruit stalls and little second-hand shops started mixing with stylish cafes and restaurants making this street the center of attention for local trendsetters and fashionistas.
This March, reastaurant Zala opened here, just above the crossroad with Zandukeli street. Zala offers a new and exciting choice of culinary dishes to be discovered in the area. It draws you in with huge windows that stand out from the shabby facades of the surrounding houses, fruit stalls and a hardware shop on the other side of the street. From outside it seems that just a few tables are jammed into the small space. But once inside you will be surprised to find 3 rooms, flowing nicely from one to another. Its popular lofty style is softened by cosy but simple 1960’s & 70’s style chairs. The walls are decorated with the graphic works of artists behind the ‘Element_ brand’. All cutlery used at Zala is handmade by the famous ceramic studio 1300.
The young team is headed by Chefs Luka Nachkeria and Irakli Gongadze, who graduated from the Georgian Culinary Academy. They create an interesting menu using elements of Georgian and European cuisine, further developing the growing trend of Georgian fusion cuisine. The showpiece of this mix of cuisines is made with one of the iconic Georgian dishes, the Khinkali. Here they are served as a stew, where small boiled and then fried dumplings are submerged in a thick gravy-like broth. A pinch of coriander is thrown on top as decoration that can draw indignation from aficionados of traditional Georgian food. However, this brings a nice fresh undertone to the whole dish. The only disappointment was the meat was a little tough.
Moving on to fish, the trout, which is divided in several pieces, was covered in a thin layer of crispy dough, served on a pillow of perfectly baked potatoes. Some strings of cress-salad were used to liven up the dish. Unfortunately, the citrus sauce mentioned in the menu is overshadowed by the pomegranate one, suspiciously reminiscent of the one that you can buy in every shop. Luckily, the fish is cooked perfectly, not often the case in Tbilisi.
The dish I enjoyed the most was the silky pelamushi panacotta, made with the addition of grape juice and some dried plums and walnuts on top. It’s not too sweet, it’s smooth and, for me, it had the perfect taste. This popular Italian dessert with a Georgian touch can be considered one of the best deserts that you can find in the city.
The drinks that I tried in Zala didn’t impress me nearly as much as the food. The homemade lemonade, offered seasonally with cherries some two months before the actual cherry season, was blunt and uninteresting. The cappuccino prepared for a good ten minutes was disappointing as it had almost no foaming top. The wine list is small and doesn’t offer a great variety. The prices for wines are almost double what you pay at the market. Unfortunately it was a true disappointment.
It is the first restaurant project for the owners of the place – businessman Levan Gugushvili and actor and TV presenter Mirian Jejelava. This can probably explain some awkwardness and lack of professionalism in restaurant’s personnel. When I first arrived I spent at least 10 minutes wandering alone through the restaurant, not greeted by anyone. The waiters spoke only very limited English and no Russian at all. The second time I was asked if I had booked a table when I came in at lunchtime and the place was almost empty. Bad service in Tbilisi restaurants is kind of commonplace but in a restaurant of such a high level like Zala you expect something better, especially since neighboring cafes really impress in this field. The service resulted in the biggest set back of my visit.
Zala is definitely a place to check out if you are interested in the food scene in Tbilisi. It would be very easy to adjust and improve the general flatness of the concept and do some staff training to improve customer service. The location and great interior design can help make Zala one of the most popular restaurants in Tbilisi even with higher than average prices.