San Francisco and Berkeley might be the epicenters of ethnic eats in the Bay Area, but now Palo Alto has something they don't: a full-fledged Georgian restaurant.
Five-month-old Bevri is the only Georgian restaurant in the Bay Area, according to owner Pavel Sirotin. It is also the first Georgian restaurant in which I've dined. So, while I cannot claim expertise in the cuisine of the Caucasus, I can vouch for the quality of the food and the festive vibe at this little restaurant, where large parties of Russian-speakers order bottles of unpronounceable wines and kids sip neon green soft drinks flavored with tarragon. Bevri, which means "plenty" or "a lot," is a delightful addition to the downtown Palo Alto restaurant scene.
Savory-sweet dishes prepared with ground nuts, pomegranates, eggplant, spiced meats, cherry plums and beets speak to culinary influences from the Eurasian country's neighbors: Turkey, Armenia, Russia and Iran.
Yet Georgian cuisine, developed over centuries at the crossroads of Asia and Europe, is a unique and ancient culinary tradition. The food and wine from this former Soviet republic have long been popular in Russia, where going out for khinkali (soup dumplings) or shashlik (kebabs) offers an exotic counterpoint to the traditional foods of the motherland, according to Pavel Sirotin, a Russian native who owns Bevri with other family members. He moved to the Bay Area with a start-up that he co-founded and eventually sold to Google.
"I have always had an interest in restaurants and the hospitality industry and we wanted to share this wonderful cuisine with people in the Bay Area," said Sirotin, stressing that a Georgian restaurant with a Russian owner and a Ukrainian executive chef should not be viewed as anything unusual.
"Russians love Georgian food very much. This is Georgian food made with California ingredients, so we do not claim it is authentic in the same way as you would find in Georgia, but it is the best of both worlds. Georgians cook very healthy meals and we know how much people in the Bay Area care about healthy food."
"Healthy" is not the word that comes to mind when your server hands you a giant cheese-filled bread boat known as khachapuri ($14-$16). This decadent culinary love child of a pizza and fondue, topped with a raw egg and butter and sometimes stuffed with spinach or other ingredients, is Georgia's beloved, national comfort food. (The little image that looks like an eye in Bevri's logo is khachapuri.)
Generally, though, Georgian cuisine is not the heavy Eastern European-style cuisine you might be imagining. A number of the menu items are noted as gluten free, vegetarian or vegan.
The one-page menu showcases some exotic-sounding offerings, each dish containing more k's and h's than the last: pkhali, khinkali, kharcho, khachapuri. Other items are amusingly noted in the plainest English with little to no elaboration: Salmon. Trout. Lamb ribs. Mushrooms. First-time diners might benefit from a patient server to help guide selections. We were lucky to be served by Natasha on both of our visits. Yet another Russian well versed in Georgian cuisine, she expertly helped us select some excellent though occasionally bland appetizers, soups, entrees, accompanying fruity sauces and perhaps most importantly, several very drinkable Georgian wines.
We started our first dinner with two very different soups. The seasonal soup ($14) was a light pumpkin purée infused with a gentle, peppery heat. It was a silky, flavorful, vegan soup that one might expect to find at any number of good restaurants.
By contrast, the hearty karcho ($16) was unlike any soup I've had before. A steaming bowl of this traditional beef, tomato broth and ground walnut stew would indeed be comforting on a cold night in the Caucasus. Herbal and earthy, the kharcho was spiced with coriander and thyme. The ground walnuts provided a delightful texture.
The eggplant rolls ($12) were plated beautifully, served cold (room temperature would have been preferable) with an artistic drizzle of balsamic glaze, ground nuts and pomegranate seeds. We enjoyed the herbal filling wrapped in thin slices of eggplant, but the rolls didn't completely deliver in terms of flavor. The menu described the dish as "piquant" and it was not.
The mushroom appetizer ($12) was six good-sized caps stuffed with several types of cheese, but not Georgia's famous, mozzarella-like sulguni, according to Sirotin. He said he is working on procuring more authentic Georgian cheeses.
The ajapsandali ($12) is a chunky stew of eggplant, tomatoes, peppers, garlic and cilantro. I don't know exactly what ajapsandali means or how to pronounce it, but it tasted like a unremarkable ratatouille.
The chicken tapaka entree ($30) serves two. It was a standout item on our first visit. Garlic and herb-marinated chicken is pan-fried to a perfect crispiness and served with what the menu refers to as "baked potato" but happily turned out to be nicely roasted potatoes. Natasha brought us two sauces to accompany the dish: adjika, a slightly spicy sauce made with red peppers, tomatoes and garlic; and tkemali, a sweet sauce made with cherry plums that often accompanies Georgian meat.
Khinkali ($12) are a close cousin to China's famed xiao long bao, or steamed soup dumplings, but a little heftier and doughier, stuffed with spiced lamb or beef with a flavor more evocative of the Middle East than the Far East. A chalkboard on the restaurant's wall provides helpful instructions for your first khinkali experience: Pick up the dumping with your hands, carefully nibble a hole and slurp out the tablespoon or two of hot broth, then bite into the meaty goodness at the center.
The fertile valleys beneath the Caucasus are, according to some sources, home to the oldest winemaking tradition in the world, going back as far as 7,000 years, when Neolithic people discovered the pleasures of grape juice left to ferment underground in large earthenware jars called qvevri. Many of Georgia's celebrated wines are still made in qvevri and Bevri offers a number of selections of these exotic wines. Qvevri wines start at $11 for a glass and go up to $90 a bottle.
Bevri also offers a handful of California wines from the Central Coast, but why bother? The amber-colored Shalauri ($19 glass, $76 bottle) made from Georgia's famed rkatsiteli grape, was a little acidic and slightly floral with a rich, almost spicy finish. The Mildiani ($8 glass, $32 bottle) is what is known as a Tsinandali wine, made from rkatsiteli and mtsvane grapes. It seemed an excellent wine for the price light, slightly dry and crisp. It paired nicely with the trout ($22), a whole fish stuffed with herbs.
The brick-walled restaurant can get a little loud as the evening progresses and the large parties order yet more wine. I'm no fan of high-decibel dining, but the animated conversations in various languages does contribute to Bevri's lively, international vibe.
Freelance writer Monica Schreiber can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
530 Bryant St., Palo Alto
Hours: Monday-Friday, 5-10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Credit cards: Yes
Outdoor seating: Yes
Alcohol: Beer and wine