Friday, February 18, 2011

The "Local" - or three

It is a truth universally acknowledged that my blogging prolificacy waxes when I'm supposed to be writing about Hegel's Phenomenology. (When I'm meant to be writing about the Byzantine Empire, I procrastinate by reading hilarious travelogues instead - who knew that the Byzantines all smelled like fish?) But I'm avoiding doing revisions of my thesis draft, and will instead focus on writing restaurant reviews and other such things about Tbilisi.

Now, in England, one's nearest watering-hole, most likely a pub, is referred to as one's "local." My "local" in Tbilisi is the marvelous Iranian chaikhana, where I am charged an arbitrary sum for some arbitrary food (no menu - I sit in front of the fire and hope today is baklava day!). But, while I've waxed rhapsodic about said chaikhana in the past, I've neglected to mention three other places within a stone's throw of my apartment, which deserve rather more profiling - especially as none is featured on the normally-comprehensive Info Tbilisi.

Gorgasalis Street

Known more commonly as the "Ossetian restaurant," this basement cavern is one of the best-value options in the city. Extraordinarily cheap, especially considered that it's steps from Chardini St and the 15-lari cocktails there, Alani serves platterfuls of Georgian food (my mother swears by the chicken shekmeruli; I prefer the khinkali, although I thought the kuchmachi a bit too rich).
Things I can't get in England

It has no windows, which makes it a bit depressing in summertime, but it's the closest traditional restaurant in the area (with the exception of Bread House, which I find enormously overpriced and far less good), and a wonderful wintertime escape. It's also the only place near my house I can afford.

Abanos St

Apparently there's a very trendy bar in Sololaki called Salve. This is not that bar. Salve is, rather, an elegant French restaurant next to the baths that, like its next-door-neighbor L'Accent Francais suffers from being both extremely pricey (by Georgian standards, maybe 20 lari for a main course) and extremely good. (therefore, it's where I go whenever my mother decides she wants to take me out to lunch! She has, alas, moved back to New York, rendering these visits less frequent). Decor-wise, it's the closest thing in Tbilisi to an Old World Central European Cafe, and as such, lures me in with its promise of mushroom pastries and proper coffee! Salve also has the advantage, unlike Alani, of being more welcoming to customers dining alone - so I can bring books and feel only mildly awkward!

L'Accent Francais
Abanos Street

Apparently Saakashvili loves this place, and it's become the most popular venue in town (i.e., secret service cordoning off Abanos Qucha). This is, clearly, because I started the trend: I'd like to take the time to point out that I've been eating at this French wine bar since it opened this summer, and that the necessary conclusion to be drawn here is that Georgia's political elite take their fashion cues from me!

Now, I tend to come here for lunch/an afternoon snack, so I miss all the apparent social frippery (preferably, really), but the prices are something of a testament to the place's clientele. (Nice bottles of wine on the menu can easily reach 3000 lari/1000 gbp). Not having 3000 lari to hand, I content myself with a very excellent 10-lari glass of wine (and I do mean excellent!) and some of the most decadent, glorious tapas known to man (duck and fig skewers, melted camembert cream with ham and crackers, bite-sized poached pear brioche!). They too are pricey at around 12 lari for a small plate (you'll need 2-3 to make a meal), but given that they seem to have been cooked with a combination of divine ambrosia and hallucinogenic lotuses, they're oh-so worth it!

Now, the fact that two of the three closest restaurants to my house are terribly pricey is rather trying, but the 7 lari tea+baklava+fruity things at the chaikhana more than makes up for it! And I can always walk across the river to Cafe Flowers...

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Tbilisi Pet Peeves

And the inevitable happened! Life, academia, an undergraduate thesis, and ghostwriting all conspired to put this blog on the back burner for a while. I'm in England, now, missing Tbilisi horribly (but set to return in late March!). I find myself missing the expected (my now-familiar Sunday ritual of antiquing at the Dry Bridge market, tea at the Iranian chaikhana, and a luxurious bath at the Royal Baths - with dog-eared, damp paperback book handy) and the unexpected (the fantastically inaccurate English tea house on Marjanishvili Street)

So, in order to make myself feel better about being extraordinarily homesick, I've compiled a somewhat tongue-in-cheek list of things I don't like about Tbilisi (which in turn manages to make me miss Tbilisi more, but it's better than  rhapsodizing about Khinkali when clearly nothing can be done about the situation!)

So, without further ado, the Things I Don't Like About Tbilisi

1) Perovskaya
Given the sheer number of foreigners who seem to spend their lives between the Radisson and the Rustaveli Square McDonalds, it may be surprising that this expat, at least, absolutely can't stand the bars and restaurants of Perovskaya. The idea of pub crawls terrifies me (a pub should have fifteenth-century wood beams, a friendly pub dog, and serve me canalside Sunday Roasts), and I find the whole block of Perovskaya/Kiacheli Street/Kostava Street to be like some horrid frat-house labryrinth of cheap shots I cannot escape! (Kiacheli Street slightly less so - I've always wanted to do karaoke at Tan Tsaige)

Not a real pub.

Where do I go for a night out? If I wanted to go to a trendy, pricey nightlife area, I find Chardini Street and Erekle to be far nicer (given that my alcohol tolerance is laughably low,  and finishing a single cocktail is enough to make me giggle and fall over, the per-drink price differential is minimal), with a vibe more condusive to sipping mojitos rather than downing shots of tequila. Of course, living right next to the world's best wine bar, which is pricey but home to some of the best tapas I've had in my life, is a bit of a spoiler (except when Saakashvili decides to use the bar for his private party and the police cordon off Abanos Qucha, forcing me to find a circuitous back-alley route home!)

For a slightly less pricey nightlife option, I'd prefer Caravan or Near Opera - arty restaurant-cafe-bars near Rustaveli Avenue.

(Although I do have a weakness for the bizarre semi-French smoky cafe on Kostava St. Anyone know what I'm talking about?)

2) Trying to Navigate the 5 million food shops on my block
I haven't yet mastered the bazroba (that's for next time), and one of the things I find most difficult about Tbilisi is mentally calculating which of the 5-6 tiny "grocery" shops in my area might have the vegetable/fruit I would like. Since I feel too guilty to go into any one shop without buying anything, a trip in search of carrots may result in my guilt-buying chocolates, bizarre Russian cereals, and tea bags BY THE BAG. This is a result of my own ineptitude, and no fault of Tbilisi (and I'm gradually improving - I know the place by the chaikhana does great baked goods, and the place near the Ossetian restaurant has the best rotisserie chickens), but given that one of my favorite things about living in Oxford is my daily trip to the Covered Market, with a bakery, cheese shop, butcher's, fishmongers, and greengrocer's all easily available for my culinary pleasure, it's irritating nonetheless.

3) The Freedom Square Underpass
I've just taken a marvelous, scenic walk through Old Tbilisi, wandering through cobblestoned streets, gasping at the beauty of crumbling balconies, feeling oh-so-smug about my Bohemian Poetic Existence, removed from the cruelty and aesthetic apostasies of the Modern World! Aha, I think to myself, in my most elegant mental cadence, I have succeeded in my fantasy of recapturing the echoes of the Lost Byzantium!

...and then I come to this.
The steps to a depressing, yellow-lit Kafkaeske maze of despair and urine puddles.

I used to ADORE underpasses on my first trip to Tbilisi, due to the wonderful number of street-sellers that set up shop there, selling flowers, trinkets, books, etc. It made the necessary journey interesting! But ever since sales have been banned in underpasses, they have turned into unattractive, empty tunnels. (Although a friend of mine met her husband when volunteering to clean one of said tunnels, so they do serve a purpose! Perhaps their grime is but a pretext for inspiring subterranean romance!)

4) Couchsurfers who want to sleep with me (not Georgia-specific)
This isn't limited to Georgia, but is a natural result of the fact that, in order to meet people in Georgia, I am compelled to join a good number of traveling/networking sites in order to avoid being a solitary catless crazy cat lady (although I mentally "own" an adorable kitten called Marius, whom I fed khachapuri back in September, and whom I'm convinced I saw (and who recognized me!) on Gorgansalis Street in December! Now, I make it extraordinarily clear on my profile that:

a) I'm not interested in "date-surfing" at all.
b) I've been in a relationship for two and a half years.
c) if you're a random guy that messages me without any sort of reference to my profile (interests in common, etc), it will come across as creepy. (Men  messaging me because they share a love of mint tea? Totally fine!)

But that doesn't stop me from getting plenty of messages, from both Georgian and non-Georgians, that seem to be copy-pasted to every female with the misfortune to register as "located in" Tbilisi. I've actually never been propositioned by Georgian men in the street (unlike other Tbilisi bloggers - seriously, I'm starting to get offended! No Georgian man has EVER come on to me in the road! What am I doing wrong?), so this is the worst "harassment" I've experienced. Not offensive so much as irritating, as it means that my attempts to Find Friends other than Marius the Kitten get thwarted.

More about my increasing disillusionment with Couchsurfing in a later post...

Unfortunately, the conclusion arrived at in this post is that the things that annoy me about Tbilisi are so silly, so enormously miniscule, that in fact Tbilisi is one of the Best Places Ever. Which makes me miss it more!