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MARKETS : Georgia on My Mind

June 03, 1993|LINDA BURUM | Burum is the author of "A Guide to Ethnic Food in Los Angeles" (HarperCollins). and

"Every Georgian dish is a poem." --Alexander Pushkin

No matter what time of day you pass by Tbilisy & Yerevan, you can't help being lured in by the aroma of bread being baked. Every few minutes the shop's baker peels a large, flat loaf from the blazing clay wall of a cylindrical oven, using an iron hook on a long pole. The oven, called a tone , is fired up all day, every day. And like its relatives, the Near Eastern tannur and the Indian tandoor, the Georgian version looks very much like an inactive volcano partially submerged in the floor.

The Georgia in question, of course, is not the Peachtree State but a country that used to be part of the Soviet Union.

For centuries Georgian bakers have been making their traditional flat bread, known as shotis puri , the way it's done here--stretching each loaf by hand, slapping it against the oven wall and piercing the dough to keep it from puffing as it bakes. The baker prepares just a few loaves at a time, propping them up against the tiles at the base of the oven. "We like to sell our bread while it is still warm," says Rita Davidson who, with her father and husband, owns the business.

Tbilisy & Yerevan sells more than baked goods, though. In its deli cases you find a collection of popular Georgian dishes, including cold chicken with satsivi , a rich walnut sauce. Peppery homemade Georgian-style sausages flavored with marigold petals and tiny Asian eggplants stuffed with a ground walnut-pomegranate filling sit next to khinkali , voluptuous meat-filled dumplings sparked with hot pepper. The khinkali have top-knots that resemble miniature turbans.

Always crowded and filled with warm smells that permeate the outer display area, Tbilisy & Yerevan is a real family operation with assorted brothers and sisters, cousins and aunts baking the breads, making pastries or whipping up a batch of their specialty for the deli case. Explaining the shop's name, Davidson says: "We also make Armenian-style puri , another kind of flat bread. Many of our customers are Armenian. So we named the shop for the country's capitals, Tbilisi in Georgia and Yerevan in Armenia."

Georgian dishes mirror the country's multifaceted history and its resulting culinary mixtures. Even before it became part of the Soviet Union, Georgia had been under Russian rule since the early 19th Century. This accounts for the several styles of Russian bread and the five varieties of Russian pirozhki sold here. Over the years these have become extremely popular with Georgians.

Georgian cooking has also absorbed influences from the Turks, Arabs, Persians and others who came and went as political power in the region shifted. Extending from the Black Sea coast up into the Caucasus Mountains, the tiny nation has a reputation for exuberantly flavored dishes with generous quantities of fresh herbs, garlic and hot pepper. A warm, in places almost sub-tropical, climate has produced a cuisine and a people that British writer Colin Thubron describes as "dagger bright," known for their spirited style, independent temperament and incredibly warm hospitality.

Davidson says that this spirit of independence describes her father, Elko Kakiashvili, who was born into a family of bakers and who started the shop. She calls him an Old World person with a New World business sense. Kakiashvili moved his family to Israel in 1969 after the Russians closed down his tie factory in Georgia. "He was making too much money--one person wasn't allowed to make so much," Davidson says. To acquire an exit visa, Kakiashvili had to stage a hunger strike in front of an official government building in Moscow.

The bakery and restaurant he opened in Israel was enormously successful. And now that his shop has been open in California for more than a year and he's gotten a feel for business here, Kakiashvili says he would like to start a small chain. It makes sense, he thinks, because customers come from all over the city to buy Tbilisy & Yerevan's specialties. The family is now looking for the right spaces in the San Fernando Valley and Glendale for their first branches.

Is L.A. ready for a chain of Georgian bakeries? Probably so.

SHOPPING LIST

BREADS

"Bread is an object of reverence in Georgia," writes Darra Goldstein in "The Georgian Feast." Dozens of differently shaped loaves are still common to Georgia's various regions, from crisp unleavened sheets to breads rich with butter and sugar. Besides the breads from the tone at Tbilisy & Yerevan, there are half a dozen other varieties baked in a conventional oven.

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