There's no way of doing the Republic of Georgia without just diving in and letting it overwhelm you.
Take a breath and immerse yourself in Georgia
Before you eat khinkali, you must know how to pronounce it. The kh- has a clear-the-throat feel to it, almost like the "kh" in "sheikh". So it sounds something like khin-KAL-ee.
Khinkali is a dumpling, filled with beef but sometimes lamb, a bit of onion, salt and pepper. It is a popular appetiser in the Republic of Georgia. It'd be the national dish if there weren't so many candidates for national dish. The experience of eating khinkali is much like the experience of Georgia itself. There's no way of doing Georgia without just diving in and letting it overwhelm you.
So this is how to eat khinkali: using your fingers, pick the dumpling up by its topknot, turn it upside down so the meat-filled pouch faces you. Apply ample amounts of ground black pepper. Bite in. Perhaps a small bite initially. Then start sucking in all the meat juices before they run down your chin and your wrists. Keep biting and keep sucking. When you're done, leave the tough topknot on your plate, or ask for a bag and take it home for the dogs. (Vegetarian versions, of potato or cheese, are tasty and not nearly as juicy.)
When my family and I visited Georgia in January, it had been 12 years since our last visit. At our first meal out, at Tsiskvili restaurant in the riverside Dighomi district, the meat drippings in my plate made it clear I'd forgotten how to manage the khinkali. After my first bite, I had to roll up my shirtsleeves.
But I hadn't forgotten the lay of Tbilisi's streets. Once experienced, this capital city leaves an impression as indelible as the first time you hold your daughter.
Hovering over Tbilisi's Old Town is the 20-metre-high statue of Mother Georgia (Kartlis deda). Holding a drinking bowl in one hand and a sword in the other, she symbolises the country's hospitality and its strength.
The Old Town's narrow streets and alleys are sentinelled by old homes whose architecture, sometimes Mediterranean- or Persian-influenced, remains uniquely Georgian: wood and brick structures with overhanging galleries, portes cochères and wooden or metal filigree. The city's lingering poverty is most apparent on these small streets, yet here is the refurbished Tbilisi State Marionette Theatre, run by Rezo Gabriadze, whose masterwork, The Battle of Stalingrad, won over New Yorkers when it played at the Lincoln Center last year.
Walking on Leselidze Street in the Old Town one afternoon, we had footlong doner sandwiches of meat, onions and tomatoes in a paprika-based sauce wrapped in thin Georgian bread. (A vegetarian version is mushroom-based.) Nearby, a number of restaurants popular with younger Tbilisians with disposable income have opened in the past two years on the pedestrian-only Erekle II Street, named after the last Georgian king before the country was absorbed by Tsarist Russia.
Kala, a jazz bar, and Nineteen, which features Italian and French cuisine, and the other bistros are a sign of Tbilisi's new-found prosperity after 70 years of the country serving as the Soviet breadbasket, several years of civil war and then several more years of uncertainty - political, economic ... and electrical. On my first two trips there, electricity was an off and on utility, more often off.
In the Old Town you will also find the world-famous sulphur baths, where 40 laris (Dh81) buys you a couple of hours of soaking in 45-degree water, a serious scrubbing-down and informal tea service. That there are sulphur baths by Mtkvari River is no accident. The legend of Tbilisi's founding is related to the heat of the river, and is kind of a food story, too. The fifth-century Georgian ruler Vakhtang Gorgasali was out duck hunting one day along the Mtkvari south of his home in Mtskheta, the region's first capital. He shot a duck and it fell into the river. When it was taken out, Gorgasali found that it was already cooked. "Tbilisi" means warm water in Georgian. A statue of Gorgasali overlooks the river on the cliffs of the east bank.
Leselidze Street spills out of the Old Town into Liberty Square, which in Soviet days was known as Lenin Square. The statue of the Bolshevik leader was knocked down in 1991 and now the plinth holds a statue of St George, the country's dragon-slaying patron saint. Tbilisi city hall and a Courtyard Marriott Hotel form two sides of the square.
When my wife and I were here the first time, in 1995, one year after the end of the civil war, residents were sawing branches off trees for firewood. Many of the shamefully but understandably denuded trees remain in the square and up Rustaveli Avenue, the city's main street, which starts at Liberty Square. Named after Georgia's Chaucer, the 12th-century poet Shota Rustaveli, it's an energetic prospect of shops, galleries, street artists and vendors, cafes and restaurants.
Since giving up coffee a few years ago in favour of tea, my wife can't go more than a couple of hours without a cuppa. Rustaveli turned out to be the perfect avenue for this. Georgia's native tea industry has finally recovered to the point where there are several pleasantly pungent Georgian brands. We sampled several at the Tbilisi Marriott and, further up the avenue, Caleb's Café. The Wi-Fi-enabled cafe is part of Prospero's Books, on the west side of the street. You can choose from soups, sandwich wraps and a wide variety of teas and coffees while spending the better part of a day amid art and cookery books. The bookstore itself is stocked with best-sellers and English-language books on local history.
Abashidze Street, through the Vere and Vake districts, runs parallel to Rustaveli. On Abashidze, we dropped into Acid Bar (a hip local chain), where we sampled rich pumpkin and creamy spinach soups, the newly opened Café Cup Cakes, and the old-world-style Café Canapé, which offers two types of khachapuri and lobiani.
There are probably as many types of khachapuri as there are regions of Georgia. Khachapuri translates literally as cheese pie and in some instances it looks like that, with a folded-over top crust, which is the way we've made it at home. Khachapuri imeruli is the most common and is stuffed with sulguni, a stringy and salty cheese; the closest we've come to replicating the taste at home is combining mozzarella and havarti.) Khachapuri megruli, from Mingrelia in the west, looks like cheese pizza. From Adjaria, bordering Turkey in the south-west, we get adjaruli, which is a dhow-shaped bread filled with sulguni and topped with hot butter and an egg over-easy. At Tsiskvili, the riverside family restaurant, the khachapuri comes in a twisted pastry cylinder, but we found the cheese so thick it could have given Mother Georgia a fight.
Café Canapé's lobiani is described as a "bean cookie", but is more like khachapuri stuffed with refried beans instead of cheese. Somehow, in two previous trips to Georgia, we'd managed to miss this bread. We made up for it this time. Always to our delight.
Lobiani derives from the word lobio, which is a catch-all word for green beans and beans of the legume sort. Lobio can be a salad, a soup, a casserole. The locals know the best lobio place in the Tbilisi area is Salobiay (pronounced Salle Lobiay), about 30 minutes north, on the road to Mtskheta, which is a must-see for the 11th-century Sveti Tskhoveli cathedral, where Erekle II is buried. (On the way there, you should see the hilltop Dzhvari Church, the oldest church in Georgia, built between 586 and 604.) The lobio at Salobiay is a slow-cooked, spicy, dal-like bean dish with fresh herbs and served in hot terracotta pots.
As much as the city has changed with its growing prosperity, much remains the same. We were especially pleased to see so many sidewalk grocers, their fresh herbs, nuts and fruit overflowing crates and thick wheels of cheese stacked on the wooden shelves of stable (Dutch) doors. Much of the fruit is likely to be locally produced, especially citrus, pomegranates and apricots, which are grown in the subtropical west, along the Black Sea.
You'll also find, hanging from awnings or in windows of shops, brown, sausage-width sticks. These are churchkela, a chopped walnuts and grape juice confection, which you cut into bite-size pieces. They're chewy, not especially pretty and not everyone's idea of a sweet. But this is the real Georgia. You must try. You must.
If you go???
Return flights from Abu Dhabi to Tbilisi via Istanbul on Turkish Airlines (www.turkishairlines.com) cost from Dh2,387, including taxes.
A double room at the Tbilisi Marriott (www.marriott.com) on Rustaveli Avenue costs from US$520 (Dh1,910) for a minimum two nights' stay, including taxes but without breakfast. There are many guest houses run by local families at more modest prices.