When I saw the Queen live exactly 35 years ago today in Budapest along with 70000 other people I couldn’t have imagined that this event would prompt me in 2021 to sing a Hungarian folk song in a semi-underground wine restaurant in Tbilisi, Georgia. Yet that’s exactly what happened. OK, Let’s step back a little. When we had a free night last week in Tbilisi we asked our friend Daniel Ercsey, a noted wine expert, where we should try the famous local wine, he recommended two places both of which happened to be within walking distance of our lodging. That’s how we ended up in the very nice and welcoming Azarphesha restaurant. Here is Daniel’s article in which he writes about it and here is his writing about the other place. For pictures check the restaurant’s Facebook page or Instagram profile.
We reserved a table in advance via Facebook, but when we arrived there was plenty of space in the front room as it had only two tables occupied (we didn’t peek into the back room) For us a nice table was reserved, close to the entrance, just like we like it. When we looked at the food menu I was almost disappointed, because it was much shorter than what I saw online: only two-to-four items in each of the four categories of snacks, salad, soup, and main course. I knew though that the simpler the menu the better the chances are for getting good food. Indeed that’s what happened. After some confusion about whether we should order food based on our wine choices or the other way around we settled on “beef salad with vegetables” and “chicken in pomegranate sauce”. The latter, for which I suspect they served me almost whole chicken, was excellent with lots of juicy sauce and cooked with prunes too. The salad was also quite nice although not as exciting as everything else we experienced that night.
We were in live Facebook chat communication with Daniel so he helped us selecting wine live. His advice was to try something from Pheasant’s Tears winery so we did their Shavkapito. First, my wife didn’t like it at all, as it was so different from other reds we drink in Georgia elsewhere. However, after about 15 minutes we warmed up to it and found it no longer too sour. On the contrary. I opted for a Sapevari, specifically from the Akhmenta Wine House. It was wonderful from the first drop, though so heavy that I felt tipsy, also from the first drop on. As the night progressed we also had a glass of Aladasturi from the Martvili Wine Cellar, another fine choice.
The wine and food were just a part of the experience and maybe not even the most memorable. What first hits you when you step in (or rather down-in) the restaurant is the plethora of cool books and objects on the walls. It is like an ethnography museum, where one is allowed to touch the objects too. For example, we paged through not just a 100+-year-old edition of “The Knight in the Panther’s Skin”, with the traditional illustrations by Hungarian artist Mihály Zichy, but also a book that included pictures and explanation of the object the restaurant was named after. This latter book was not on a shelf, but on a table, because the author of the book just brought it in, so had a chance to see her too.
But what the whole space really revolved around was not the food, wine, or other objects but the proprietor himself, Luarsab Togonidze. He is a larger-than-life figure, who was all over the place. He chatted with the French couple who showed him the article Le Figaro wrote about his restaurant, based on which they came here. His main focus was entertaining a large table of guests, wine enthusiasts from California and France, with long toasts, stories, and singing. You can only see his back in this video as he was playing the guitar and a friend of his did most of the singing. Do check it out for at least a few seconds, because it is quite a treat to listen to.
After we politely applauded, Luarsab sat down at our table too. As soon as he learned that we came all the way from Hungary he started to sing and talk about Freddie Mercury’s rendition of a Hungarian folk song at the 1986 concert in Hungary. (This Hungarian article summarizes well what that concert meant for so many of us.) This shared memory created an immediate bond between us. We sang the song below for him to the best of our abilities and he joined in too.
We told him that both of us were at the concert, albeit separately, and it was a fantastic evening. Luarsab shared with us that he is a huge Freddie Mercury fan. Later he talked about his upcoming book, about the place, how his business partner–John Wurdeman, an American artist–had to go home because of the pandemic. He even explained that the name of the restaurant derives from a traditional Georgian drinking utensil, see picture above. We became so close that he invited us for chacha that his mother made. He couldn’t deliver on this promise though as the kitchen informed him that it was sold out so we drank another good brand of this strong Georgian drink with him. He also insisted that we accept a small gift, a tiny black amphora from him as a gift.
Previously we mostly just heard about the extent of Georgian hospitality and the quality of their wine. This evening we immersed ourselves into both of them. Thank you.