g.Vino: “Georgian with a European twist”

Erekle II Street in Old Tbilisi is lined with popular restaurants. But when I walk up to g.Vino, I know that it’s different from the others. The waiter is attentive without being pushy, the interior feels more spacious than usual, the lighting is just right for a summer evening. It’s non-smoking, a nice touch. There is outdoor seating but I choose the air-conditioned dining room, it being a sweltering August night.

I look over the menu while a gritty voice moans over blues guitar in the background. The food is definitely Georgian, but different from other Georgian dishes I’ve tasted before. There is kharcho, a hearty meat soup, as well as several dishes featuring ghomi (Georgian polenta). Then there are some obvious imports: gazpacho, ajvar, hummus.

“We liked places like this … tapas style,” co-owners Lida and Mamuka tell me as we bite into a platter of cheeses, dips (including caramelized onions with sour cream and goat’s cheese) and bread baked just a few feet from the table. “As customers we know what customers want. It’s Georgian with a European twist, and European with a Georgian twist,” add the owners.

A while later the waiter brings over a platter of dambal khacho, melted, aged goat’s cheese with fresh bread slices to dip. “The menu is simple and it isn’t difficult to prepare,” I’m told. “You just use good ingredients, and the outcome can’t be bad.” All ingredients are sourced from farms near Tbilisi, meaning the food has a particularly fresh flavor. It also means the menu is always being tweaked, because the same small batches of cheese, for example, aren’t produced year round.

g.Vino has great food, but it’s obvious that much of the clientele is there for the beverages. Lida and Mamuka specialize in pairing dishes with authentic Georgian wines produced using natural methods. Neither claims to be a wine connoisseur – “sometimes I can’t even distinguish the flavor,” Mamuka admits – but they know a good wine when they taste one.

The menu features rich reds and crisp whites, as well as a selection of the strong yellow wines common to Georgia’s wine region of Kakheti. Every wine they serve (mostly Georgian but with a smattering of Italian and Spanish varieties) is produced using natural methods.

Natural winemaking, Mamuka explains, means that “you only intervene in a very limited way, when you grow the grapes and when you make the wine.” In Georgia, that means the grape juice is placed in an earthenware jug called a qvevri, which is then stored underground for fermentation. This keeps the liquid at a constant temperature for the duration of the process.

The first wine we taste is chinuri, an easily-palatable red made in central Georgia, not far from Tbilisi. It goes well to wash down our plate of artisan cheeses with honey and green and red olives (I’m slightly disappointed to learn that olives are not grown in Georgia). Later, while John Lennon plays in the background, Mamuka will uncork a bottle of kisi, a “quite rare” wine from Kakheti with an amber color and deep flavor.

“We are looking for new producers all the time,” Lida tells me. “We want to find new wines, good wines, obviously, and promote them here. Discover them.” Sourcing wines locally and from small producers also helps conserve rare species of grape, some of which would disappear if they weren’t used in the winemaking process.

I’m thoroughly impressed with each of the flavors presented. But g.Vino’s fresh approach to the restaurant business means more than fresh food and naturally-produced wines. It’s also about personnel. They hire only people brand-new to the restaurant business. Neither our waiter, nor the manager nor any of the cooks had restaurant experience before being hired on at g.Vino.

“We’re tolerant if they [the staff] make a mistake, but not tolerant if they don’t like what they do,” Lida tells me. The lightbulb finally goes on. I knew something was different, better, about this place. It wasn’t really the wines, cheeses and caramelized onion dips, although those were all great. It was the atmosphere. The staff at g.Vino work there because they have enthusiasm for the restaurant business. That’s something you don’t often see in Tbilisi.

Lida and Mamuka’s philosophy can be expressed in eight words: “if staff is happy, the customer is happy.” I’m no philosopher, but in this case, the approach definitely works.

Joseph Larsen

13 August 2015 23:03