Dining in a Restaurant Overlooking Tbilisi’s Past and Future
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Looking at the white-arched Funicular Station from afar—such as from the other bank of the Mtkvari River—one cannot help appreciating architects Zakaria and Nadezhda Kurdiani’s idea of making the building look impressive and appealing from a distance. And it worked! And though much time has passed since 1938, and many new landmarks have sprung to enrich Tbilisi, it is the Funicular—one of the most striking and attractive urban symbols—that continues to define the city’s character and contemporary cultural makeup.
And that’s why dining at the Funicular Restaurant is a whole ritual in its own right. You may not even anticipate this special quality—planning just another gathering in a circle of friends or family—but once you enter the place, a subconscious kind of reverence and solemnity overwhelms you. You may not even know that Margaret Thatcher and other foreign leaders and guests of honor have dined here, but exclusiveness is the first word that comes to mind to describe the restaurant’s aura. You just can’t escape
this feeling that the restaurant has many magnificent, glorious stories to tell walking down memory lane.
Except that the stories here are living participants of the daily creative process, not just soulless artifacts. This liveliness and constant change are ensured mostly by chef Giorgi Sarajishvili.
With 26 years of experience in cooking, Giorgi says that he is a lifelong student, meaning that he learns something new wherever he goes or works. Two recipes learned abroad, five invented—a full menu to bring back home! As a novice learning and inventing new dishes and combinations, Giorgi not only wrote down recipes but also added illustrations—visualizations to help him perfect the flavor. He doesn’t draw anymore, though. Instead, every day he comes up with a new combination of flavors celebrating one ingredient or another.
This penchant for innovation reflects heavily in the constantly changing menu and dishes served at the Funicular. Giorgi himself refers to the restaurant’s menu as Georgian experimental. Everything on the menu echoes the past and, at the same time, harmonizes with modern methods of making sauces or processing meat, while some parts of the decorative aspect come and go, and others stay permanently. In fact, food presentation is what Giorgi is trying to maintain. He breaks it down for me: “When you eat kharcho soup, it should look like kharcho.” But flavors he does alternate, making the dish soften and silkier at times, or ushers in an element of surprise by adding green apples to green beans. Still, no matter how daring and radical his experiments, Giorgi never loses his grip on the key culinary features of Georgia’s regions. “We have a small Georgia here,” he says and lists the ingredients of oven-baked ribs: “Adjika hot paste from Guria, also berry and wine sauce, smoked sulguni cheese, and ghomi grits—this dish brings together Imereti, Guria, and Samegrelo.”
Other examples of probing into new ways of food presentation and experimenting with flavors include Josper oven-baked beef tenderloin with dambalkhacho moldy cheese and Caesar’s mushrooms seasoned with barberries and pumpkin as a side dish, or chicken with Megrelian adjika hot paste, matsoni yogurt dressing and sauce, or artichokes with walnuts served alongside pumpkin seasoned with walnut paste and barberries, or “baby” khinkali dumplings with hazelnut adjika hot paste in gebzhalia dairy sauce.
“I never duplicate my dishes anywhere else—these are the restaurant’s exclusive property,” Giorgi says and adds that travel is the best way to develop a culinary skills: “Traveling helps keep your mind sharp and vision keen.” He never tires of traveling: “Together with seven other cooks, I’m about to travel to Meskheti, to learn more about the region’s specialties.”
In the meantime, an autumn menu has already taken over at the Funicular. As a rule, the menu changes every three months. And it doesn’t matter if there is a big hit on an old menu—it has to go. Though the chef also admits mercifully that, hating to break his customer’s hearts, he is always eager to cook their favorite dishes from older menus.
Besides main courses and side dishes, the autumn menu offers exciting soup mixes like chikhirtma seasoned and decorated with Imereti saffron.
Check out the dessert section, too. It boasts several exciting original new items. One such invention from Giorgi Sarajishvili is called Aspurtsela [A thousand leaves or sheets in Georgian], for example. This mille-feuille, also known as vanilla slice, has white chocolate and custard between the layers, with the bottom layer covered with caramelized pumpkin, pumpkin cream, and a pumpkin seed gozinaki caramelized confection.
While it’s still warm out there—or any time for that matter—whenever you crave ice-cream, remember that the Funicular serves cherry/vanilla ice-cream with churchkhela candle-shaped candy and, at the bottom, nazuki sweetbread.
And if you’re after something lighter, you can always order a matsoni dessert with chestnut honey and walnuts.
The Funicular menu speaks for itself. Georgia-produced ingredients are used to present traditional Georgian dishes from a new angle. That’s probably why it dawned on me that dining here means embracing Tbilisi’s past and future at the same time.