Georgia on my mind; eating out

LITTLE GEORGIA (as in the place where Stalin was born rather than the Deep South) is an elegant-looking restaurant which specialises in Georgian and Russian cuisine. When it opened a few months back, in a street not at all far from where I live in Hackney, I felt a bit like you do when you're watching one of those nature documentaries where baby albatrosses learn to fly near seas patrolled by ravenous tiger sharks.

"Fly away! Fly away!" I wanted to urge the hapless proprietor. "Don't you realise this is Hackney, not Islington? We don't do posh round these parts. And the only ethnic food we eat is Turkish or Vietnamese." So I decided I'd do my best to rescue his fledgling enterprise from the tiger sharks of failure by giving it a really nice review. As the friendly local restaurant critic, I felt it was the least I could do.

But then a horrible thought struck me: what if the food was really awful? I could hardly write a whole bunch of lies about how brilliant it was, could I? Nor, I felt sure, would I have the stomach to give it a real pasting. That would be wantonly cruel. So in the end I did what I always tend to do in these tricky situations: absolutely nothing.

Only very recently did I finally pluck up the courage to visit Little Georgia. There are two reasons why I changed my mind. First, as you may have learnt from that Panorama on soaring house prices, Hackney has miraculously turned into the new Islington and everything that happens there is suddenly sexy, thrusting and hot. Second, Naughty Tiffanie was due to come round for dinner and, since I couldn't be bothered to cook, I thought we'd dine on expenses at Little Georgia instead.

With hindsight I now realise that Little Georgia is almost perfectly placed to capitalise on the success of booming New Hackney. It's housed in one of those splendidly proportioned Victorian former pubs. It's on a quiet, decreasingly rough commercial street. It specialises in the sort of exotic cuisine which no one's eaten before but which every vaguely adventurous diner wants to try at least once. Its ambience is laid-back; its gastro-pub-style interior perfectly pitched between grungy and chic; and its prices cheap enough not to be scary but high enough to make you feel as though you're having a bit of a treat.

But is the food any good? Well it took the three of us quite some time before we found out because there was only one man on front-of-house duty - a likeable, slightly batty, young Georgian - and the poor chap was worked off his feet. So the girls kept themselves amused with an experimental glass each of Georgian wine - the red was pretty good, I thought, but the white had a worrying touch of the urinals about it - while I chickened out with a bottle of Kriek cherry beer.

I do wish we hadn't all started off with soup, first because it meant missing out on two of the house specialities - Georgian Mixed Meze and Hachapuri (Georgian cheese bread, about which our waiter was wildly enthusiastic) - and second because it wasn't all that special. The Borscht that X and I had just wasn't pungent enough, while Naughty Tiffanie's Akroshka (a cold yoghurt soup with peas and bits in it) was a bit flat and uneventful. But at least, we agreed, they had a sort of authentic home-made charm.

Still, until the main courses arrived, it was touch and go as to whether I'd give Little Georgia the thumbs-up. When they did, all was forgiven. Not only were the dishes lovingly prepared but they achieved the rare feat of tasting quite unlike anything we'd eaten before: imagine a cross between French and Turkish and you'll get a rough idea.

Quite the weirdest dish was Naughty Tiffanie's Satsivi Trout. Crisp-fried so that the pink flesh had a lovely crunchy golden surface, it tasted more like a noble sea fish than the horrid river fish that trout normally is, and it was set off quite beautifully by a tangy walnut sauce.

I was pretty impressed too by my Chakapuli - meltingly- tender chunks of lamb in a white wine and tarragon sauce, buried in a heap of fresh green herbs and served with a mound of rice. But the dish I should have had was X's truly wondrous Chanakhi. Basically, it's a spicy lamb and aubergine stew served in an earthenware pot. But bald description does not do it justice. It tastes like just the sort of thing your Georgian peasant grandmother might have made: chilli-hot, wholesome, comfort-foody. You've really got to try it.

Of course, I'll bet if you went to the real Georgia, you wouldn't eat anything half so nice. All you'd get is bits of donkey and radioactive vegetables, I imagine: just like you always do in the former Eastern Bloc. When I suggested this to the waiter, however, he insisted this was not the case. "No," he said. "The food in Georgia is very ... Excuse me, I must serve that table first." And I never did get to hear his answer. Sorry.

Little Georgia

2 Broadway Market, London E8, 0171 249 9070.

Lunch Tues-Fri noon-2.30pm,

Sun 1-4pm. Dinner Tues-Thurs

6.30-10.15pm, Fri-Sat 6.30-10.45pm. Closed Monday.

Three-course dinner about pounds 16.

Visa and Mastercard accepted

WHAT'S ON THE WINE LIST

This list is sui generis - at least in London. It has a few European and New World bottles if you want to play it safe, but you might as well go native and drink cheap Georgian wines. Neither you nor I have ever heard of any of them, but the prices are painless. And you can switch to the decent selection of beers and vodkas if they're ghastly. An adventure playground for imbibers.

Saparavi pounds 12

The wine name is the grape name, an indigenous Georgian variety offering, we are told, "a whiff of tar and a beetroot heart, with butch, upfront tannins"

Balanchine pounds 12

Will this one get you dancing? Made from the Rkatsiteli grape, and described as a "nettley-nosed, summery citrus dry white"

Kvanchkara pounds 12/50cl

From the Alexanderauli grape grown in the Kvanchkara region. The restaurant says it's a "limited-edition wine ... extremely popular among Georgians, forest-berry sweet"

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