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EATS: in and around the Valley | RESTAURANT REVIEW

To Russians With Love

For its decidedly Slavic clientele, Encino's Tbilisi recreates flair of traditional Georgian offerings.

January 01, 1998|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Tbilisi serves Russian cuisine, or so says the sign outside this Encino restaurant. But we know better.

It's named for the capital city of Georgia, a small republic in the Caucasus that has a most distinctive cuisine. That's what's served here.

Why call it Russian? "If we would put 'Georgian Cuisine' on the side of the building," says co-owner Boris Michaelson, "then people come in looking for fried chicken."

He needn't worry. Nearly all his customers are Russian-speaking anyway. Russians are big fans of Georgian cooking, with its fruit and nut sauces, exotic spicing and peasanty but decidedly un-Russian flair. Georgian cooking abounds with vegetables and other fresh ingredients that most Muscovites can only dream about: plums, pomegranates, cilantro.

A full Georgian meal begins with cold appetizers and progresses to hot appetizers, soups and meaty entrees. It's a spread, believe me.

Seven of us arrived for our own Georgian feast, and it took us more than two hours to eat our way through it. First came four classical Georgian appetizers. One dish (called long eggplant here) was slices of eggplant marinated in olive oil, parsley and a world of garlic. Next to it were Georgian-style eggplant rolls--eggplant slices rolled up and stuffed with a dense walnut paste.

Then there was satsivi, a cold dish of chicken in a creamy walnut sauce. Satsivi is usually made with duck in Georgia, but this version was so seductive no one could complain. The fourth appetizer was a mild, finely minced beet salad, more sweet than earthy.

Next we were served big, round meat dumplings (khinkali) with a tiny knot of dough at the top of each serving as sort of a handle. The dumplings had a thick, doughy crust and dauntingly juicy filling of spiced lamb. Georgians eat khinkali piping hot, with lots of black pepper.

The dumplings were followed by khachapuri, a Georgian cheese bread (the menu describes it as Georgian pizza). I've had khachapuri that looks like the naan in an Indian restaurant, only with a soft farmer's cheese inside. This one was cut into rich, buttery squares, something like Hungarian cheese strudel.

The next course was a hearty, intense soup called lobio, made with red kidney beans--a characteristic Georgian ingredient--dosed with garlic and cilantro. Cilantro also played a part in the dish that followed, chakapuli. It was lamb stewed with onions, garlic and enough parsley and cilantro to turn it moss green. It goes perfectly with yeasty, oil-rubbed, focaccia-like Georgian bread.

The main course was a platter of meats. The simplest was lula kebab, the familiar Persian-style cylinders of minced beef blackened on a grill. The most visually impressive was pokarsky (that is, a dish prepared po-Karski, in the style of the ancient Armenian city of Kars): lamb chops dyed bright red by a pomegranate juice marinade. But my favorite among them was kupati, a coarse homemade sausage flavored with whole pomegranate seeds.

The restaurant has no liquor license, so the beverage of choice is Coca-Cola, which the restaurant serves in big plastic pitchers. They might consider putting up a Coke sign, but what kind of clientele would that attract?

BE THERE

Tbilisi, 18000 Ventura Blvd., Encino. 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. daily. Dinner for two, $24-$36. Suggested dishes: satsivi, $6.99; khinkali, $5.99; khachapuri, $2.50; chakapuli, $9.99; kupati, $12.99. No alcohol. Parking lot. MasterCard and Visa. (818) 344-0466.

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