Monday, March 29, 2010

Gruusia Saatkond

In the interests of propagating Georgian culture, we at Tartu – City of Good Food have decided to provide a translation of their greatest legend in modern English, using the original Estonian version for reference, as found inside the menu at Gruusia Saatkond (the Georgian Embassy) on Rüütli Street.

Kui siis jumal rahvastele maid jagas
(When some sort of deity passed out soil to the peoples)
Jäid grusiinid veinil ja lihal hea maitstes maast ilma
(The Georgians missed out because they were getting drunk and eating flesh)
Ja jumala juurde jõudes ütlesid, et nad veini juures teda hea joogi eest tänasid
(They turned to this deity and said, “Each drink was a toast to you, Buddy!”)
Ei jäänud jumalal muud üle kui anda grusiinidele viljakas ja kaunis maa
(The deity had no choice but to give the Georgians a fair and fertile piece of soil)
Mille ta enda jaoks oli hoidnud
(The one it had been saving for itself*)

*Various other translations of this last line, including that of the Georgian Embassy itself, suggest, “His private spot.”

At the beginning of the last decade, the dining situation in Tartu was dire. Apart from Irish fusion, some sort of Asiatic nonsense and the newly discovered Holy Trinity of Tartu (blue cheese, pineapple and red bell pepper), there wasn’t much choice in the way of cuisine, unless you were satisfied with buckwheat and mystery meat. Those of us who had grown up with a somewhat broader range of food welcomed the newest member of the Kitchen Klub—Gruusia Saatkond. Georgian food is for Estonia what Mexican is for America and Indian for England.

That’s not entirely accurate, on second thought, as there are only two known Georgian restaurants in Tartu. While they are run—even indirectly—by people from Georgia proper (not the state in America!), it would be more precise to refer to this food as Caucasian (meaning from the Caucasus, not white people in America!). This also includes Armenia and Azerbaijan. There is a satisfying selection of Caucasian food in Tartu if you think about it this way. And, like Mexican and Indian food in their respective host countries, Caucasian food has adapted itself to the Estonian market. It now includes peeled and boiled potatoes.

Last week we went to the Embassy to enjoy a meal with friends who had just returned from abroad. We reserved a table for six and arrived at eight, only to be seated at a table for four cramped up next to a party of ten. As the lone table in the back up and left after eating, we acquisitioned their places so we could comfortably converse and dine. We had our menus delivered promptly, but it wasn’t until forty minutes after our arrival that our orders were taken. Krista—the waitress, and mother of a woman married to a Georgian (I think that’s the relation)—had her hands full with three tables and no other staff to help her.

Krista was very friendly and could clearly answer questions and accept orders in English (one friend didn’t speak Estonian), but she was hard to find. She seldom made appearances in the dining area. Once our orders had been placed, however, the food started rolling out right on time. The khachapuri—bread stuffed with cheese—was fantastic as usual. It tastes like a grilled cheese sandwich with enough ethnicity to satisfy your whiteness. And, as an appetizer, it had even been served well in advance of the main courses, contrary to contemporary Tartu practices of serving appetizers with desserts.

Over the years, the dishes have changed, as to be expected. The cheburek—a deep-fried bread pocket with mystery meat tucked inside—had more than doubled in size and price. As for the main dishes, their prices have also doubled, or even tripled, in cost. But without the respective increase in portion size. Some of the signature sides had even gone so far as to disappear. I’m referring to the adjika sauce and pepperoncinis that accompanied most foods in years past.

This was a place to take visiting guests if you wanted a guaranteed good meal. Their kebobs were excellent—basically seasoned kafta sauced and wrapped in lavash—the Caucasian tortilla. The chicken ketsi was always my favorite. Today the menu describes it as “chicken pieces in sour cream sauce with adjika”. Years ago, the description was something along the lines of “baby chicks cut into pieces”. That might even be a direct quote, if memory serves correctly.

Yet this time the food, like the menu’s description, was far less provocative. Provocative in the sense that you would think, “Wow, this is excellent!” I always looked forward to finishing the pieces of chick because that meant I was free to dredge my Georgian bread in the leftover sauce, savoring each remaining bite. The stuff served this time was simply seasoned chicken in herbal butter. The chicken had a very strong “boiled” flavor to it. Three of us had ordered the chicken ketsi, and we were all equally disappointed. And I found no indication of adjika anywhere on the plate.

Only our friend who had ordered the chicken shish-kabob was satisfied. In Tartu at least, the shish-kabob is the prize dish in any Caucasian eatery. As for the summer season, the whole country lovingly grills šašlõkk—even the skinheads! Gruusia Saatkond’s shish-kabobs were always great (three varieties: pork, chicken and salmon), but today the salmon has been replaced with lamb, which makes sense. I somehow doubt the ancient Georgians had developed salmon farming. Either way, the grill is in need of some serious renovation. I’m not sure how I would feel about my food being cooked with the help of a Coke bottle. This next photograph reminds me of what I found when we had to replace our new Glaskek windows because they had insulated them with plastic Coke bottles.

The problem with the Embassy’s shish-kabobs is that the price has almost tripled. It happened all of a sudden, about three or four years ago. Everyone got greedy—the whole country. The economy made everyone think they were millionaires, and prices were raised accordingly. And while most Tartu restaurants have reentered reality these days, the Embassy has not. Maybe the night we dined there was an off night. I would really like to believe that. But on the off-hand chance it was an average night, then I would have to say the food is just mediocre for the price, and perhaps that’s why the restaurant was mostly empty (the Embassy used to be packed on a daily basis!). I saw three tables reserved, all vacant. As one foreign friend likes to say, “It makes no sense that a lot of the locals are still charging over two million for a shit shack.” This is Tartu, but these are euro prices.

The atmosphere was also not as warm as it used to be—literally and figuratively. One of the reasons we moved from the first table was because, in addition to the floor slanting, there was a draught from the window. We were all still cold at the new table, though we sat next to the grill-slash-furnace. There were some strange purple strips of cloth on the table that we unanimously chose to remove. They were slippery and kept wrinkling up. The napkin holders were nice, however, and provided us with entertainment while we awaited our waitress. The breadbasket became an attractive ship at sea, with a sail made of the waterproof napkins on our plates.

The entrance has always been nice. By the guestbook is an autographed photo of President Saakashvili. I would really like to know what he thought of his dinner there. And the jonis, with its interesting ribbed mirror.

But back to the food—specifically, my chicken ketsi. Having already described the chicken itself, I will list the side dishes. Boiled potatoes (they were also deep fried, I think), a pinkish shredded cabbage salad (mildly pickled perhaps—very good), and raw sliced onions and red bell pepper. For a hundred and twenty kroons. Now, I’ve personally experienced the full firepower of Georgian cuisine in Estonia. I know how amazing it can be—even if most of the sides are just sliced veggies.

Last night I decided to create my own chicken ketsi based on my memory of it from years ago (the Internet was of little help). What you are about to read is a Mingus original—feel free to experiment with it, and definitely share your thoughts. It is one of the best things I’ve ever produced in my kitchen, and I’d like to think it glorifies the Georgian Buddy that gave people soil.

While the name in the Embassy is “chicken ketsi”, a ketsi is really a clay cooking dish and doesn’t seem to have much to do with the recipe itself. Thus, so I can at least have something positive to say about Gruusia Saatkond, I will name this dish “Saelcho Chicken” (Embassy Chicken).

Brown some chicken thighs and legs in butter on a pan, then add a couple onions and cloves of garlic finely chopped (I used a food processor for speed). Simmer a few minutes, then add the zest and juice of half a lemon. Lightly coat with salt and pepper, as well as a couple spoonfuls of paprika (I was lucky enough to have access to some smoked paprika from Israel). Top it off with a couple sprigs of thyme. Add a small amount of chicken stock—just enough so the pan isn’t dry. Braise your chicken and occasionally turn it over, and continue until the chicken is ready. Three-quarters of an hour maybe.

Remove the chicken and separate the meat from the bones. Transfer what remains in the pan to a pot, adding a cup or two of the stock. Pour in about half a cup of sour cream, a teaspoon of ground fennel and a dried cayenne pepper (also finely ground) then sprinkle in a generous dash of turmeric for color. Stir frequently for a few minutes till it thickens a bit, then add a gracious handful of fresh basil, mint and cilantro (coriander leaves), all finely chopped. Serve the sauce over the pieces of chick. Sides of baked herbal potato and, of course, chopped raw veggies.

That’s a lot of ingredients. Most of them I already had on hand, so keeping that in mind, I was able to produce six full portions for roughly eighty kroons. Portions identical to the Embassy’s chicken ketsi. Each portion worked out to be about thirteen kroons, and I spent one hour doing this. A professional chef could undoubtedly shave a few minutes off that. I won’t factor in the costs of wages, rent, utilities and so on. I’ll leave that to your imagination.

But if the Embassy served this kind of food for more affordable prices, heated a little more and hired some extra staff—oh, and stopped taking reservations—they would be able to provide the Georgian government with a significant source of funding. Maybe Georgia would just be able to buy out the Russians, instead of picking hopeless fights and hoping for Western intervention. Because both the country and the restaurant really are in great spots.


John said...

Again Gruusia Saatkond used to be perhaps my favorite restaurant in Tartu and maybe in all of Estonia. In addition to the food and bizarre decor reminiscent of a Caucasian fun-house ride I especially liked the wine advertised as "Stalin's favorite!"

But I haven't been back in a long time because of the dramatic increase in price and reduction in quality. This is too bad. Georgian cuisine, ubiquitous in the USSR and roughly analogous to Chinese in the West but almost unknown outside the former Soviet Union is one of world's finest. It reflects Georgia's position at the crossroads of Europe, Asia, and the Middle East but with it's own unique dishes and flavors using walnuts, pomegranate, etc. Thanks for your Chopped Chick a la Mingus recipe! Sounds delicious!

BTW one of the best meals I have ever had was Khashi (or tripe stew) at a Georgian restaurant in Latvia! There's a recipe for it here along with more info, recipes, etc. here:

Anonymous said...

We just tried your recept. Amazing. We used petersel too. Thank you!

Külliki said...

Dear Mingus,
I am really sorry for your disappointing night at Gruusia Saatkond (GS). There is nothing which could excuse stressed waitress, a draught and failed chicken ketsi. However, there are some things I would like to ask/comment
1) are the entries in this blog written as restaurant reviews or just the descriptions of the evenings at the restaurants? The sidebar of the blog ("restaurant reviews of tartu eateries") supports the first but the content of the entry (just eating a few dishes during one evening) the second.
2) the way you ate at GS that night makes me almost cry. You were four and the three of you took the same dish!!!! what an opportunity missed! When you are 4 at GS, order your table full of cold and hot appetizers, followed by grilled dishes and accompanied by wine. I agree that the main courses at GS can be uninspiring and dull. Just do NOT order them, order those little masterpieces called light cold/warm dishes. I think GS should have on menu a dish of mixed appetizers as an introduction to georgian cuisine.

sorry for the english language, I am not a native speaker and my linguistic editor was busy:)

Mingus said...

Hi, thanks for your input. I don't think the waitress was stressed out or anything, she just wasn't there. Hard to find. The blog is more a description of life in Tartu, and it focuses on eating out.
There were six of us that night in the Embassy, and frankly we didn't want to pay two hundred kroons for a bowl of lamb soup. The chicken ketsi used to be good, and we all knew it. Some of our party also ordered the kebob and a couple other things. But you say we shouldn't order the main dishes.
That's my whole point. If the restaurant's main dishes aren't good, then, I'm sorry, but I think it's rather obvious what that means.
It used to be a great place, and it's just gone downhill, a lot, over the years, while the prices are still on the ski lift.

Gruusia Saatkond said...

Dear Sir,

We are glad that You have noticed our restaruant Gruusia Saatkond. Furthermore, we are most pleased that You have decided to inform people via Your blog. Gruusia Saatkond is thankful for every kind of feedback, wheather it is bad or good. Because, only this way can we improve ourself for our customers and offer You delicious Georgian food and good vine.

Lia Arand Gruusia Saatkond

Anonymous said...

Apparently it's a well known fact that you are supposed to order mostly small appetizers and side dishes, which aren't that expensive and are very tasty. As much as I have heard not many people order the pricy main dishes.

Ragne said...

I remember the time when Gruusia Saatkond was just starting out. It was on 2001, me and my then-boyfriend were poor students and couldn't really afford much from the menu, so we always ordered one Hatšapuri and two teas. The Hatšapuri was so big and delicious and cost only 27 kroons! Now when me and my husband feel nostalgic and visit Gruusia Saatkond, we are always left with only our memories of once delicious and cheap Hatšapuri, which has now turned into a pretty small and mediocre pie with very little cheese in it. Not to mention the current price of 75.-. I agree about rest of the dishes as well - while the portions have greatly decreased, the food experience itself is sadly only mediocre. I very much hope that Gruusia Saatkond people are keeping an eye on this article, because i must say, your prices truly are too expensive for the quality you now offer! I don't remember the last time we visited, there are just so many more reasonable alternatives around.

I hope things will pick up and we all can once again enjoy the great and well priced cooking of Gruusia Saatkond.

Anonymous said...

I don't know if it's intentional or accidental, but they vent out the grill smell. Every time I walk by, my mouth starts watering.