There’s been a lot on my mind recently. Culture shock. Religion. Race. Tolerance and intolerance. All of these are big, interesting, intertwined, and controversial subjects. I don’t really know how to address them yet – how to peel back the onion of my psyche and give an honest and accurate report of what’s going on in my head without shocking or offending anyone – so while I’m mulling that all over I figured I’d be lazy and crank out another restaurant review post.
First I’ll cover my old favorite: Maharajah. I’ve been to this place at least five or six times – which is a lot considering that it’s on the higher end of my price range – and I can’t recommend it enough.
Maharajah is my go-to for Indian food. My favorites are the Vegetable Samosas, Vegetable Biryani, Chicken Pakoras, and Chicken Tikka Masala. The samosas are nicely spiced and reasonably spicy, nicely fried so they’re light and crisp, and very satisfying overall. The chicken tikka masala isn’t so much like the masala I’m used to in the US – it’s thicker, darker, chunkier, and spicier – but it’s really quite good. The pakoras are the least “authentic,” that is, as far as I can tell having only eating Indian food in New York, but they’re good anyway. The best way I could describe them is that their relationship to Indian food is similar to Chili’s relationship to Mexican food. Finally, the biryani is very tasty, not all that spicy, and full of delicious vegetables.
On the other hand, I’m avoiding all red meat dishes like mutton or beef. I ordered a mutton curry once and it had bones and bone shards, which I’m not a big fan of but which are the norm in Georgian meat dishes. It was delicious, but basically inedible.
Entrees run about 15-20 lari, drinks start at about 3 lari for Georgian beer and go up. Service is very good. Atmosphere is perfect – light incense, good music, comfortable seating, rich decor.
There’s actually a bunch of Thai food in Tbilisi, which surprised me. First, there’s a restaurant on Abashidze in Vake simply called “Thai.” I didn’t like it.
I ordered the Gai Satay and Neua Pad Kra Prow. The satay came in a really phenomenal peanut sauce that, while delicious, was mostly sweet rather than spicy. The chicken itself was just okay. The kra prow was incredibly disappointing. I’m sure I’m spoiled because I used to live down the street from this unbelievably fantastic Thai place in Brooklyn where I could get this dish for $7.50 and it came with rice and was one of the most delicious things I have ever tasted. So being in Tbilisi and paying 19 lari (that’s about $12!) and the dish doesn’t even come with rice was already a bad sign. The beef was chewy and flavorless. There was no spice to the dish – it’s not supposed to be fiery and overwhelming, but it is supposed to have Thai chilies or at least some approximation thereof. The vegetables were just okay. I didn’t even finish my plate.
So the prices were exorbitant, the service was bad (well, it was about average for Georgia, which would be completely unacceptable in the US), the food ranged from terrible to just okay, and the loungy seating was uncomfortable for a meal. I’m sorry to have to trash the place, but there was just no reason for me to ever go back there or recommend it to anyone else. My friends seemed satisfied with their dishes, so maybe I just didn’t choose wisely. In other words, I shouldn’t have expected the beef to be good.
So here’s the thing. Even though the flavor profile of the kra prow was way off the mark, having good beef would have saved the dish. That’s because basically if you take a nice cut of beef and just heat it until it’s safe to eat, it will be delicious. You can add salt and pepper, or mustard, or bbq sauce, or basil and chillies and fish sauce and garlic and onions, and all of these things are nice, but at its core, beef is a tasty food that I like to eat.
That is, unless someone ruins it. When I read about the Thai restaurants in Tbilisi in a recent newspaper article, one of the chefs said that it was difficult to find decent beef in Georgia, and that he often had to recut the meat because it had been butchered without regard to prevailing world standards of cow-cutting. So I don’t know if I should blame the chef at this Thai restaurant for failing to salvage enough decent pieces of meat to make a stir-fry, or just chalk it up to one of the inconveniences of living in Georgia. You basically can’t get good cuts of meat in this country. At least with chicken, the restaurant chefs can buy whole chickens and butcher them themselves. So unless you find a restaurant that butchers its own cows, I would not order any beef dish that isn’t ground, and even that I’d be careful with. I’d actually extend that to any large animal, including pigs and sheep.
Anyway, aside from the peanut sauce, basically everything about this place was bad and/or disappointing. Don’t go there.
Next on my Thai list is Lemon Grass, on Saakadze Square in Saburtalo. This is basically a buffet style lunch cafe with various stir-fries and the option to get burgers or shaurma if you’re not feeling the Thai for whatever reason.
The food is good. And backtracking on what I just said, Lemon Grass is so far the sole exception to my beef rule. They managed to get beef right – it was edible, tender, well-cut, and nicely spiced. The prices are a tiny bit steep for a lunch cafe – you’ll probably spend on the order of ten lari – so it’s not like I could afford to get lunch there every day. The service is pretty good (no table service, like I said it’s more like a buffet/deli style place). I recommend trying the place.
Finally – and this place keeps popping up – there’s Elvis. What does Elvis have to do with Thai food? Well, Elvis American Diner also has a small Thai stir-fry buffet (in addition to some fusion dishes and a sushi menu that I’ve seen someone survive eating). Elvis’ Thai stir-fry is good. I especially recommend anything with baby corn in it. I’m often irritated by their lack of selection in sides, though – they often don’t have any rice side dishes, which, what? Really? Their lunch special is priced at about 8 lari for a main course and two sides though. Check it out.
China Town. Maybe the best bang for your buck on this whole list.
First of all, the place is on Shardeni street, so I expected to pay with my firstborn. Not so. Entrees start at 12 lari, and the Spring Rolls were only 2.50. I ordered them along with the Sliced Chicken with Peppers, which was 13 lari and rated two on the spice scale (which went from zero to three – but there were no menu items rated three, so this basically counts as the restaurant’s spiciest category of dishes). My friend got the Pork in Yu Xiang Sauce (I think). The dishes came with rice, as they should.
The chicken was fiery – the spice was slow to set it and on the verge of painful. I regard this as a good thing. The pork was sweeter, not very spicy, but delicious. The spring rolls were fried a light crisp golden brown and were really really good, and also came with an awesome carrot flower (a little section of carrot sliced to look like a rose). My rice was a little dry, but that’s a trifling complaint compared to how good the rest of the food was. After dinner we each ordered a Hot Sake (I know, sake is not Chinese, but it was on the menu) and it was really really good – a lot sweeter and less astringent than the sakes I am used to.
And aside from the food, which was reasonably priced and really delicious, the thing that stood out most was the service. The servers were attentive, polite, prompt, competent, and always ready. The service would have been considered excellent even by American standards. The decor of the restaurant was nice, although we ate outside, which was lovely. I’m definitely planning to visit this place more often and try out more of their menu items.
Of course my goal is to try every foreign restaurant in this city. Given limitations in time and funding, this goal may take me a while to reach. There are several Asian restaurants I’ve missed – a fusion place, another Indian place, another Chinese place, several Japanese places, and the rumored Korean restaurant in Avlabari. Maybe in another few months I’ll have made it to them all and we can have Part II of this review.