Barbarestan: Renaissance of aristocratic Georgian cuisine
There were times when rich merchants and Georgian aristocracy lived in big beautiful art nouveau mansions. The style and the latest trends could be seen not only in architecture and interior design, but also on their dinner tables.
The duchess Varvara Eristavi Jorjadze lived in one such mansion. She was a talented poet and play writer, mother of three and a food enthusiast. But, she is best known for being the first Georgian to be considered a feminist and for writing the first Georgian culinary book entitled ‘Georgian Cuisine: Tried and True Family Methods’. With this book she wanted to bring the recipes from aristocratic homes to every dinner table in Georgia.
Over 150 years later, a member of the Kurasbediani family was walking through the flea market on the Dry Bridge and accidently found one of the editions of this long forgotten cookbook. This discovery led to the idea of a restaurant that later was called Barbarestan or simply ‘At Barbara’s’. Consulting agency Gastronaut helped to develop the details and concept of the menu and design. The restaurant opened its doors in December, 2015 at #132 Aghmashenebeli avenue. It is located in an old 19th Century mansion on the first floor and in the old wine cellar of the house.
Inside you dive into the atmosphere of an old Tbilisi home. A canary sings in the corner, tables are covered with traditional white and blue tableclothes and colorful lampshades cover you with a soft yellow light. The manager greets you as a dear friend and invites you inside with a big warm smile.
The menu is made almost entirely from recipes in the original book. The recipes have been adapted slightly to appeal to the modern taste by the restaurant’s brand-chef Levan Kobiashvili. The team cooks only with seasonal produce, so the menu changes every three months.
The menu has a few surprises in store for anyone that visits the restaurant. First, we noticed duck stewed with pear. Duck in Georgia is a rare treat. The next surprise was rabbit with sour cream sauce. Again, you can hardly ever find it in local restaurants not to mention traditional Georgian ones. So we ordered both. Our waitress Ana recommended a set of four appetizers while we wait for mains.
Next was the wine. The wine list is dominated by natural qvevri wines from small wine producers. The list impresses with great variety in whites and reds. Ana told us that they have 300 wines in their cellar. After an unusually difficult choice we decided on a bottle of Rkatsiteli-Akhoebi from Soliko.
The wine presentation just simply blew my mind. Nowhere in Tbilisi have I seen such a perfect decanting and offering of wine to a guest. We were so impressed that we started to ask Ana about her work and how she learned all this. She was very sweet and honest. She told us that before starting work in the restaurant she trained for three months. At the end of the training she passed an exam, where she needed to show, among other things, a deep knowledge of wines. Ana is only 19 and it’s her first job. And of course she spoke great English, telling us that she also speaks Russian and Lithuanian. After talking to her I admired her and the owners of the restaurant.
The service in Barbarestan is the best that I’ve experienced in this country, maybe that I’ve ever experienced. I haven’t been to any Michelin star restaurants, but I suppose the famous stars are given for this level of perfection. While we were waiting, the manager himself told us the story of the famous duchess Jorjadze and even showed us a copy of the book published in 1914. Ana served our food, changed plates and filled our glasses with royal dignity and fawnlike grace.
The first impression of the food was a set of appetizers served with some homemade focaccia-like flatbread. Caramelized onions mixed with wallnuts made my taste buds dance. Nadugi cheese with mint reminded me of thick whipped cream. I don’t really like pkhali but the variation with broccoli that we tried in Barbarestan is worth trying to repeat at home. The aubergines surprised me with a great flavour and softness. The bread didn’t impress me much because it was too hard for my taste but it served its role.
Next was the duck. Pieces of meat on a pillow of carrot puree formed an interesting pyramid with slices of stewed pear. The best duck that I’ve had before was in Paris. Now I have a new favorite much closer to home. The softness of the duck was extraordinary and it was cooked just right. The rabbit, served in pieces rolled in bacon didn’t impress me quite as much. The best detail of this dish was a ball of dumble khacho – traditional (and very smelly) cheese from the mountainous areas of Georgia – served on the side. The sour cream sauce complimented the slightly dry meat, bringing everything together.
The story of our visit to Barbarestan would not be complete without the dessert. The pelamushi cake is the only dish on the menu created solely by the restaurant’s chef Levan Kobiashvili. It is a sublime mix of grape juice boiled with corn flower resting on a bed of nuts, served with several dots of homemade caramel and two dollops of their own ice cream. It was a great culmination to our lunch. This cake can definitely compete with some of the best recepies from the famous book.
After this meal we pondered the question: what are such French dishes doing in a supposedly Georgian restaurant? According to Andria Kurasbediani, Manager of Barbarestan, there is no contradiction. During soviet times, Georgian cuisine became very simple. Now the owners of the restaurant want to show how people in the city used to eat before. European and especially French recipes were quite common within certain circles. But they always used local ingredients. The owners carefully select the produce they buy, choosing only the best suppliers from around the country.
The utmost attention to detail, a heartwarming atmosphere, and incredibly delicious food make Barbarestan a very special place on the culinary map of Tbilisi. It wasn’t my first time in this restaurant. I must applaude the whole team for the work they’ve done in the past year and wish them a lot of success in the future, success that they totally deserve. It is a great place to experience Georgian food culture or to go on a special date. I will definitely go back very soon!
Note: We strongly recommend to book a table before going to Barbarestan even for lunch.