I was recently asked by a journalism student at City University London how to make it as a restaurant critic. After confessing I gave myself the job (shameless, I know), one of my comments was that if you go to a restaurant whose cuisine you don't know, take an expert.
So when Marani – a new Georgian restaurant in London's Mayfair – came across my radar, I knew just what to do. Susie Mesure, this newspaper's brilliant senior news writer, lived in Georgia a few years back, and is often to be heard sighing wistfully about the food, so she was my guest (along with Alice Jones, the deputy arts editor of the daily paper, and Russia aficionado).
Susie arrives and is misty-eyed leafing through the long menu as I'm transfixed by the gee-gaws and slightly odd artwork on the walls. We seem to be in a frosty ante-room to the main action, where big groups are carousing. Upstairs is a bit Miss Havisham-goes-to-eastern-Europe, with candles, mirrors and photos of ancient gentry.
For the record, Susie directs us to eat: khachapuri (traditional cheese and egg bread); mixed pkhali (leeks, aubergines and spinach, each poached and with walnuts and pomegranate seeds); Georgian salad – tomato and cucumber with walnuts (walnuts are very much a feature of this cuisine); chkmeruli – grilled baby chicken with garlic sauce; khinkali, traditional dumplings steeped in their own broth; mtsvadi, marinated skewers – we have lamb; lobio (spiced kidney beans served with mixed pickles); and grilled vegetables.
Phew. The pkhali are delicious – unctuous vegetables with the crunch of nuts and seeds. The chicken is, well, chicken. The dumplings look sensational, tall swirls like pleated 1950s skirts, but taste blah. The lamb is chewy and unlovely; the lobio delightful. So, a meal of two extremes. But for the real view, over to Susie…
"Eating Georgian in London is tricky for the obvious reason that it isn't Georgia. This matters for a couple of reason. First, the lack of exact ingredients: I'm thinking sumptuous, pink Georgian tomatoes, which we were told were unique to a country that likes to think everything it serves has come directly from God's own kitchen; and salty Sulguni cheese, the staple ingredient in khachapuri.
"But more than that, the problem is how the food is served: despite the small-plates boom, we're still mainly used to eating big, solo dishes. Or at least Georgians living in London think that's how we eat. So what in Tbilisi would come as a big sharing plate for the middle of the table is instead piled high, too high, on individual plates. Georgian food needs to be eaten as a feast – which basically means a four-hour-plus banquet during which you eat and drink everything in the kitchen.
"Having said that, I love the atmosphere and décor at Marani; upstairs, with its dripping candles is perhaps a little too authentic if your main memories are of living there in the dying days of Shevardnadze when there was no electricity! And the slightly odd artwork downstairs transports me instantly to the dodgy art market on the edge of the Mtkvari river that divides Tbilisi.
"The pkhalis are good, though the spinach doesn't have enough sauce. The lobio, too, are good, and I like how they are served, with pickled veg and mchadi (corn bread) – but there's no way one person could eat that entire dish! The khinkali are too dry; gravy should burst out when you bite into them. And odd to have them on a menu in a fancy restaurant, as normally they'd just be the sole dish in a roadside mountain shack.
"But really to get a proper idea we'd have needed quadruple the guests and quadruple the dishes, and a fat wallet, full of ill-gotten gains… And for added authenticity, we'd need a tamada (toastmaster), who would have made long, long sentimental toasts: to peace, love, the deceased etc."
Back to me, now – and as an outsider, I know I would have ordered wrongly if I'd gone alone. (The menu is mind-bogglingly long.) Come winter, though, I might go back mob-handed (this place is made for big groups) and order again the half I loved – all real rib-stickers, for which I'd say "didi madloba" and order some more kindzmarauli (traditional sweet red wine, mmm).
Marani, 54 Curzon Street, London W1. Tel: 07877 448 964. £130 for three, with drinks
Four more foodie notes from the past week
On a health kick with a regime at The Library gym in London. No sugar, no alcohol, lots of avocados – and now expert at picking that split-second moment of ripeness!
Bought a beautiful chrome stove-top pizza oven a year ago; haven't looked back. Last weekend with a houseful of kids, we churned out lovely crisp bespoke pizzas.
The Five Fields
An invitation to join the power women of London's food scene for dinner at this very swanky but deliciously natural Chelsea restaurant made me very happy.
Marks & Spencer
Today is chocolate-frenzy day. I like a classic bunny or duck, but my daughter went mad for the M&S Easter egg with shades and cans on: Headphone Jack.Reuse content