Three steppes to heaven

It takes guts to venture into the unknown territory that is Georgian cuisine. So, is there life after beetroot?
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Indy Lifestyle Online

You know how it is with subtitled foreign-language films. It's not that you don't trust the buff who recommends the moving story of mute brothers eking out an existence as fishermen on the shores of Lake Baikal. Just that the right time to catch it never seems to come. There's always a much-hyped, usually disappointing, but initially more tempting blockbuster to see before joining the arthouse crowd to sit through an unflinchingly faithful account of peasant life. Some time ago - I'm embarrassed to admit how long - I was recommended a Georgian restaurant in Holloway, north London, and a Ukrainian in Richmond.

You know how it is with subtitled foreign-language films. It's not that you don't trust the buff who recommends the moving story of mute brothers eking out an existence as fishermen on the shores of Lake Baikal. Just that the right time to catch it never seems to come. There's always a much-hyped, usually disappointing, but initially more tempting blockbuster to see before joining the arthouse crowd to sit through an unflinchingly faithful account of peasant life. Some time ago - I'm embarrassed to admit how long - I was recommended a Georgian restaurant in Holloway, north London, and a Ukrainian in Richmond.

By a very slow process of eliminating alternatives, recently speeded up by the election of a new Russian president and the imminence of Easter (a feast I believe Eastern orthodox religions are big on), they had finally worked their way to the top of my must-visit list. Curiosity about Georgian and Ukrainian food, and irritation with hyped and overpriced West End restaurants, got the better of me.

And guess what? Both were utterly dismal. Common characteristics: maudlin atmosphere, baleful staff, barely edible food. I'd rather put behind me the threadbare carpet, frightful folkloric wallpaintings and oppressed serving girl made forgetful by anxiety at the other.

The memorably-named bozbash, a lamb stew with chickpeas, apricots and apples was the Ukrainian dish I least wish to forget. A bowl of borscht was vinegary. At the Georgian joint we were deceived into ordering dumplings by their misleading billing as a "tasty casing". These tidy little twists of soft white dough concealed mince that looked dangerously raw. A beef stew with pomegranate and coriander was drabber than the paintwork. There were no alleviating local wines to convince us that the country is one of the world's oldest centres of viticulture, though the imported mineral water was so extraordinarily rich in minerals it makes Badoit look impoverished.

Still, I wouldn't bother to tell you all this if I hadn't hit paydirt at the third attempt - a converted Hackney pub. I'd passed it several times, but nobody had urged me to go and I'd never got round to it until now.

You can have Ukrainian borscht at Little Georgia. It's a glorious, gratifying bowlful with sausage and bacon lending seductive smokiness to the red beet's sweetness. There are olives, red peppers and onions in it, too, tipping the balance from the cabbagey tendency into more congenial Mediterranean territory. The climate is agreeable, the country fertile and beautiful; the republic of Georgia has the natural advantages of pomegranates, aubergines, walnuts, peppers and coriander to add charm to the cabbage red and white, roots, gherkins and Spam-like sausages that are more generally associated with Eastern Europe.

Pkhali, a "pâté" of beetroot, with walnuts and sour cream, combines these influences in a piquant, not particularly nutty, but creamy and intensely garlicky dip; deliciously unusual. A variation with leek was more fibrous and not much less pleasing. For good measure we added a Russian salad. Heinz's emetic interpretation must have been a Cold War ruse to discredit Russian food. But Little Georgia's combination of peas, potato, carrot and gherkin in a light mayonnaise liberal with fresh, frondy dill was a salad so miraculously reformed it should guarantee lasting entente. Nobody need fear the dumplings here, either.

Shashlik, the meat, marinated in pomegranates, red onions, lemon juice and Georgian spices - whatever they may be - was superbly tender with a molasses-like tang. Satsivi, a thick sauce of ground walnuts provides a powerful and rich accompaniment to trout, chicken or as we ordered it, a large, sumptuous, grilled aubergine. Each main course also comes with a contrastingly crunchy small salad of cucumber, tomato and dill and sour cream. Independent since 1992 , Georgia used to produce the bulk of subsidised wine drunk in the Soviet Union and now has investment from Pernod Ricard, and Australian flying wine-makers to improve the quality of its output. Little Georgia has some of the best, Balanchine red and white for £12 a bottle.

The music did become a little singalong-a-shepherd. But until then it had been almost ironically loungey, and other artefacts - paintings of flyovers à la Gary Hume - were more Hackney than folksy. Notwithstanding the amount of food we'd eaten, our mood remained buoyant. Optimistic enough, even, to continue to pudding. It was a revelatory, uncloying rice pudding of fat brown grains sweetened and sharpened with dried fruit and lemon peel.

Recommending places that are fascinatingly foreign but impossible to sit through for two courses is cultural relativism that serves nobody well. Novelty is not enough. Little Georgia, though, does not involve doing penance. It's great by any standards, and at around £20 for three courses and drinks - cheap, too. You'll have to trust me.

Little Georgia, 2 Broadway Market, London E8 (020-7249 9070) Tue-Sat dinner, Sun lunch and dinner. Major cards, not Amex or Diners. Limited disabled access (not to toilets). Also: Tblisi, 91 Holloway Road, London N7 (020-7607 2536); Kozachok, 10 Red Lion Street, Richmond, Surrey (020-8948 2366)

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