Updated: Thursday, November 23, 2017, 1:48 PM
A toné is a traditional domed bread hearth that looks like a giant brick tandoor and, since it’s literally sunk several feet into the earth, it is the rooted heart of any Georgian community. When its hot inner wall is pressed with roasting loaves of shoti, their pointy diamond shapes arrayed in tilted rows to form a perfect herringbone of roasting bread, a hot bowl of spicy kharcho beef soup cannot be far away.
And yet, though nearly 12,000 people from various republics once ruled by the Soviet Union now live in Northeast Philadelphia — mostly from Ukraine, Russia, Uzbekistan and Belarus — our previous lack of a toné (say: tow-nay) was notable.
Yes, we’ve had a couple Georgian restaurants come and go over the years (Absolute, Uncle’s Backyard) serving khachapuri cheese breads, tasty kebabs and lobio bean pots. But no toné, no longevity. And so one of the world’s most distinctive cuisines, rich with walnuts, tart pomegranate jewels, soulful stews and always, always, a fresh-baked loaf, has been a void in Philly’s otherwise admirable collection of Balkan and Caucasus kitchens.
“When we came here 11 years ago, I knew everybody from Georgia,” said Imeda Londaridze, 31, a native of the southeastern city of Rustavi. “But the community has grown. Now I maybe know half.”
That percentage should grow fast now that Londaridze and his family have built themselves a six-foot-deep toné for Georgian Bread, the bakery and restaurant they opened this year on Bustleton Avenue in the Somerton neighborhood of Northeast Philly. They do not fire it up with the hot ash of flaming dried grapevines that author Darra Goldstein (The Georgian Feast, HarperCollins 1992) says was typical of the old-fashioned bakeries. But once the gas-fired dome hits a proper blister, baker Misha Demetrashvili can use his long-handled hook and paddle to make as many as 500 loaves of shoti a day, their irregular oblong shapes reminiscent of a boat whose wide spongy middle girth and crusty points offer a multitude of textures to sop up any number of the stewy delights served in Georgian Bread’s rustic dining room.
From creamy pots of pureed lobio red beans served in mini-earthenware pots to the chakapuli of wine-braised tender veal served in a cilantro-scented broth ribboned with spinach, this menu is full of warming, rustic fare that’s perfect for cold-weather eating.
Londaridze and his dad, Vakhtang, a contractor, built the space themselves to evoke the Old World in every way, from the knotty pine siding to the wood picnic table booths, ornate forest green wallpaper and even the creepy mannequin of a knife-wielding Georgian knight in traditional choxa garb and white papaxi puffball hat who can also be seen whirling into full action combat mode in an episode playing on the inevitable TV at the back of the room. (There’s also a rock star video of a dude jamming Hendrix-style in his puffball hat, so papaxi never go out style.) Take a sip of the startling green “lemonade” soda infused with tarragon — looks like Scope, tastes like a cream soda version of nonalcoholic absinthe — and you can truly channel your inner-Tblisi on Bustleton vibe.
What’s most fascinating about this restaurant is that Georgian cuisine (not to mention its ancient wines, conveniently well-stocked at the state store just down the street) is unique among the former Soviet republics with its reliance on walnuts, beans and pomegranate. And not surprisingly, bread-based specialties are also a prime draw, especially the myriad variations on khachapuri that top a soft dough pizza-style with an addictive blend of creamy, salty cheeses. The imeruli is khachapuri at its simplest, with cheese stuffed between two thin layers of floppy bread. But try the adjaruli, an elongated oval whose cheesy eye is topped with a baked egg for extra, runny richness. Next time, I won’t miss the lobiani bread stuffed with mashed red beans.
“We have dough secrets, and we have cheese secrets, too,” said Londaridze, who declined to share their blend, though he did concede that feta lent a piquant touch to the unctuousness of mozzarella, along with other additions. Using Georgia’s famously sour and salty suluguni cheese would be too expensive, he said, though they serve it on a cheese platter along with smoked sulguni and dense sheep’s milk guda.
There are plenty of other great dishes here drawn from other corners of the Georgian canon, including garlicky salad starters. Try the slices of baked eggplant rolled with a pureed walnut sauce so rich it almost tastes like walnut butter. Pomegranate seeds add little bursts of juicy tartness, leavening the richness of the dish, and work similarly in the flavorful purees of ruby beets and chopped green spinach that come molded into rounds that are irresistible once you get you used to the densely mashed textures.
The grilled skewers of cubed chicken and veal here are perfectly fine, but they’re no match in savor volume for some of the neighborhood’s many Uzbek kitchens (Uzbekistan, Suzani Arts, Shish Kabab Palace, Samarkand). The ground meat “kababi” of beef and pork, however, is one notable exception, its coriander-kissed meat juicy against the snap of red onions and a tomato-based dip that’s like zingy Caucasus catsup.
I have no hesitation in recommending other hot-side entrées because, with their slow cooking and intricate spicing, they bring the full character of rustic Georgian cooking to every spoonful. Londaridz is slim on providing culinary details. But author Olia Hercules notes in her evocative new book Kaukasis (Weldon Owen, 2017) that blue fenugreek, dried yellow marigolds and aromatic flavored salts and spice pastes called adjika are omnipresent in dishes like the fried tabaka chicken, a blister-skinned little bird that arrives splayed on the bone for picking. Even better was the chkmeruli, a tabaka chicken simmered in a crock of milk with garlic and showered with cilantro and dill. Another classic chicken dish, sacivi, comes stewed in creamy walnut sauce.
This kitchen’s most memorable efforts, though, were made from beef. The sup-kharcho was a soupier bowl, with thick chunks of tender beef simmered with bits of soft rice in a spicy broth tinted with tomato. The ostri brought smaller chunks of meat in thicker stew dusted with dill that would have been crave-worthy if only it had been more thoroughly warmed from the cold
deli case on the bakery side of Georgian Bread, where it’s also sold retail to go.
The biggest surprise, though, were the slow-to-cook khinkali. This plate of beggar’s purse dumplings look sort of like the famous Shanghai soup dumplings, but supersized and bulked up for the Caucasus mountain folk. And their twisted tops form a tip so dense and sturdy, many habitués simply use it as a knob to hold the bundles and discard them after they take a bite. But be careful to lean over when you do! The peppery pork and veal stuffings release a gush of flavorful broth all over the plate, if all goes according to plan.
Luckily, Georgian Bread has just the solution for that brothy excess. A crusty loaf of shoti, fresh off the toné’s hot domed walls, is ready to sop up every last drop, and then draw me, not to mention every Georgian in the Philadelphia metropolitan area, back for more.
Read full story: Georgian Bread brings exotic feast to Northeast Philly