Hot, cheesy bread is the beautiful beginning of a Georgian feast.
Can you say "khachapuri" 10 times fast?
If you like hot fresh bread stuffed with cheese as much as I do, you'll give it a try. And it's not as hard as it seems - even if you're not from Tbilisi. The "k" is silent. Plus, it's a relatively short drive to the northern 'burb of Feasterville, where you can practice ordering from our own local Khachapuri King, Teimurazi Kikvidze, who reaffirms just how addictive these two simple elements together can be. (The Republic of Georgia, that is, not the one in Dixie.)
At its essence, khachapuri is simply an inch-thick round of homemade dough stuffed with tangy white cheese - not unlike a stuffed pizza. But the flavor is distinctive. And there is something especially savory about a wedge of Kikvidze's pie when it arrives fresh from the oven, its warm and flaky yeasted crust wrapped around those crumbly, salty curds. Save room for the beet salad, harcho soup, and the kebabs, I tell myself. Yet wedge upon wedge is quickly devoured.
"We eat it every day," says Kikvidze, chef and owner of Restaurant Absolute, who left his hometown of Kutaisi in the early '90s after the country split off from the former Soviet Union. "Khachapuri: This is Georgian life."
It's also the best way to start your meal at Absolute, one of only a handful of destinations in our region to explore Georgia's unique walnut- and cilantro-laced cuisine. But first you'll have to find it. This exotic restaurant is wedged into a most unexotic locale, its silvery door glinting from an aging Bustleton Avenue strip mall just south of Street Road, sandwiched between a busy Hong Kong King Buffet and the Sparkles Beer Store.
If the surprisingly upscale decor beyond that door doesn't startle you - a sleek lair of silvery tented chiffon, crystal chandeliers, and Italian marble floors - then the sights, sounds, and smells should do the trick, from the one-man band crooning Georgian pop tunes to undulating dancers near the back of the room, to the flaming kebab trees that land like primeval candles in front of eager guests at large banquet tables lining the room.
Absolute, currently open only Friday through Sunday beside Kikvidze's prepared-food market Gastronome (which he opened after logging years in American chains like Bertucci's and Domino's, then, briefly, Yanni's in Center City), was built three years ago with those large parties and blow-out fixed-price menus in mind (from $55 up). And customers arrive by the family dozen with their BYO cases of cognac, vodka, and Georgian wine to party and toast one another all night. "Sometimes until 3 a.m.," says Adelya Kikvidze, Teimurazi's wife.
Adelya takes pride in the fact that Restaurant Absolute is a notch quieter than some of the larger Russian-style clubs. A relatively smaller space with room for 100, it is more manageable and more approachable for newcomers than some of the others - though on slow nights it can also feel oddly empty without a crowd to jump-start the dancing. Even so, the very reasonably priced a la carte menu (figure $20-$30 per person for a meal) is available to all comers. And it was a perfect place to take our guest, Sara, who was eagerly preparing to leave shortly on the adventure of teaching English in Georgia.
"What, you don't like Philadelphia?" said our charming waitress, Anna, in an unexpected burst of accented Philly pride. "Don't rush."
Indeed, so many emigres from states of the former Soviet Union have settled in Northeast Philly and lower Bucks County, their culture is now very much a part of this city. But Kikvidze's excellent renditions of Georgian cuisine are quite distinctive from the flavors you'll encounter elsewhere in the region from other corners of the former Soviet Union, including the more prevalent Ukrainian and Uzbeki-style menus.
It begins, of course, with the khachapuri, which Kikvidze offers in a few variations, including a braided open-faced masterpiece, the Adjarian, shaped like a giant eye and topped with a raw egg. But virtually everything Kikvidze touches, from the myriad salads to the sizzling kebabs, has the touch of a cook who feels the soul of what he's doing.
Those vegetable salads are usually what fill the table next. A simple cold beet salad, shredded with ever-present cilantro, Thai basil, and dill, becomes memorable once blended with crushed walnuts and the sweet-and-sour spice of tkemali, a housemade sour plum sauce blended from red and green plums, more herbs, garlic, and hot pepper heat. Russian-style potato salad and pureed spinach salad (filled with bits of walnut) are fresh as can be. A classic stewed red kidney bean dish called lobio also highlights two of Georgian cuisine's most recurring themes - cilantro and walnuts - which, along with a splash of balsamic and garlic, elevate canned beans to irresistible.
Georgians don't pickle their mushrooms like Ukrainians do, Kikvidze says, they marinate them, after a light roast, in the mushroom's natural juices with basil and vinegar. But he's also skilled with straight-on pickling, everything from beets and carrots to cukes and cabbage. His pickled cherry tomatoes burst in the mouth with the vinegared tang of garden fruit steeped with dill flowers and chile.
Kikvidze's homespun soups are also not to be missed. The classic Georgian soup is called harcho, a soulful dill-scattered bowl steeped with tender beef and tinted red with tomatoes and an upswell of aromatic spice (dill seed, fenugreek, clove, and coriander seeds) that give this soup, also blended with rice, its distinctive savor. His veal-stewed borscht and sausage-and-pickle-filled solyanka are also worthwhile. But I find myself craving another cup of Absolute's chicken soup, a deceptively simple yellow broth bobbing with fresh chicken meatballs.
Absolute dabbles in dumplings more typical of other regions - potato pierogi and chicken-filled vareniki - both more than adequate, but not a reason to come. One exception is the chebureki, which look sort of like flat empanadas, crisp half-moon pastries stuffed with a garlicky, cilantro-kissed mince of pork, beef, and onions.
Kikvidze shows off some Continental moves in excellent crepe dishes, Georgianized with seasoned ground chicken, then rolled in bread crumbs and pan fried for an extra crisp to stand up to the rich Stroganoff-like sauce of mushrooms and sour cream.
For a taste of true Georgian-style flavors, the kebabs are a must. Kikvidze grills them over real charcoal, and the flavors resonate.
Rack of lamb brings three plump chops that are fantastically tender and savory despite only a brief marinade in cumin and paprika. The pork shish kebab is delicious, too, ringing with garlic, cumin, and cilantro, as are the moist chicken kebabs. The lulya kebab, a minced blend of chicken and lamb, gets shaped around the skewer's flat blade like a heat-charred torpedo. Dip any of these meats in satsibili, a zesty homemade Georgian ketchup pepped up with cilantro, garlic, spicy peppers, and even Georgian spring water, and you may not go back to Heinz. Kikvidze's fresh pan-fried Yukon potatoes and onions topped with crushed garlic and dill give French fries Georgian competition, too.
Not to be left out, the non-meat-eaters at our table had entree options, too. The grilled vegetables were simple but appealing. And while I didn't love the pan-fried flounder in kindzmari (the classic Georgian white sauce was great, but the fish overcooked), Absolute's fish kebabs were every bit as good as the meat. At our meal, there were big cubes of buttery, lemony Chilean sea bass, whose light marinade of garlicky mayo turned golden brown in the heat. I'd love to return for the special-order sturgeon kebabs one day, too.
But what I really want is to order enough skewers to deserve a flaming kebab tree of my own - the fire dancing at the center of a ring of dangling skewers. "For that, you need 10 people," Anna tells me sternly. "Bring your friends."
Khachapuri, khachapuri, khachapuri, khachapuri, khachapuri, khachapuri, khachapuri, khachapuri, khachapuri, khachapuri.
Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at firstname.lastname@example.org or 215-854-2593.