PSA: Check Your Alumni Emails!
A few weeks ago, I joined two of my B-School best buds and other NYU alumni for a Georgian feast at the Manhattan restaurant, Chama Mama. I really love curated dining experiences, especially when they’re affordable, so I jumped at the opportunity as soon as I got the alumni email and made sure my friends signed up too.
The event was organized by the NYU Stern Food & Wine Alumni Group as one of their quarterly dinners. The group was originally started by Joan Bloom and Laura Hill with alumni they knew personally. After a few years, it grew to become a recognized Affinity Group through the Office of Alumni Relations. There’s now a committee that works to find restaurants and plan menus while the Office provides marketing and registration support. Team work making that dream work.
For this event, Joan and team worked with Tamara Chubinidze, one of Chama Mama’s owners, and Mariam Navdarashvili, General Manager, to craft an extensive and delicious tasting menu for our group.
Before You Google “Georgia”
So if you’re like me, you know Georgia is indeed a country…but not much more. I had a neighbor in my first NYC apt building who traveled to Georgia frequently for work. I remember sitting on our brownstone steps and listening to him talk about how great the wine was. That was my closest data point. I did a little google search so I could learn a bit more and share a few facts with you. Here we go!
Georgia is a country in the Caucasus region of Eurasia. Located at the crossroads of Western Asia and Eastern Europe, it is bounded to the west by the Black Sea, to the north by Russia, to the south by Turkey and Armenia, and to the southeast by Azerbaijan. Over the centuries, Georgia was the object of rivalry between Persia, Turkey and Russia, before being eventually annexed by Russia in the 19th century. It succeeded from the Soviet Union in 1991. Yes, there’s a lot baked in there, but let’s continue.
A Wine-Making OG
Georgia is one of the oldest wine regions in the world. From 6000 BC inhabitants of the current Georgia were cultivating grapes and burying clay vessels, kvevris, in which they stored wine at ground temperature until it was ready to serve. In 2013, UNESCO added the ancient traditional Georgian wine making method using the kvevri clay jars to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists.
About Amber Wine
Amber wine, known as orange wine in other lands, has become increasingly popular in the past 5+ years, partially due to Georgia’s reemergence as a major wine producer. Georgian amber wines are made from white grapes that are aged with the skins, stalks and all in the kvevri (clay vessel). The kvevri is then sealed and left to ferment for 5-6 months before bottling. This maturation on the skins is what gives this wine its unique characteristics and amber color. In contrast, Georgian white wines are made by removing the skins and stalks before aging. So, how does it taste? In general, I find that amber wines have a bit more body and tannins than white wines. Now to the meal!
Apps on Apps
Upon arriving, we were greeted with vibrant platters of cold appetizers including pickles, assorted salads and a fresh cheese with mint in a yogurt-like sauce. The beautiful red and green salads were Pkhali, a traditional dish where ground walnuts are mixed with vegetables (beets and greens in this case), vinegar and other seasonings. We also helped ourselves fluffy bread that reminded me of a cross between pita and ciabatta served with dried sunflower oil (wow!). I especially liked the pickled peppers and cucumbers along side the bread and fresh cheese.
Next, we had soup dumplings, stuffed cheese bread, and stuffed grape leaves. Just noticing the stuffed foods theme as I write this. Ha! Perhaps that’s a Georgian thing?
The dumplings, called Khinkali, looked like the weight-lifting cousin of Chinese Xiaolongbao (aka. soup dumplings). They are bigger, and have a thicker skin which made them much easier to eat. It felt a little funny eating dumplings like this with a fork, but it was a clear reminder of how Georgia is positioned at the cross roads of Asia and Europe.
I was excited to try the Imeruli Khachapuri cheese bread from the moment I read the menu for the event. Cheese and pastry are two of my favorite food groups, and this interpretation did not disappoint. Our server brought around the golden brown pizza-sized disc filled with a mild and melt-y cheese and served us each a generous slice.
A note on Khachapuri: Chama Mama serves a few different versions, including their Instagram-famous Adjaruli, which looks like a cheesy open bread boat topped with an egg that you mix together with the molten cheese. I’ve been told this is worth checking out if you come for dinner, it’s just not ideal for serving to large groups.
To The Mains
On to the soup course, where we had an option of mushroom or lamb soup. I chose the lamb Chakapuli. It has a clear flavorful broth that’s brightened with cilantro and some acidity. Inside are tender chunks of lamb. I’d never had a soup like this before. It was a pleasantly unexpected combination of familiar flavors and textures. I was getting full but managed to push forward like a champ for the mixed grill course.
Next, we got a generous meat platter of lamb chop, sausages and pork and beef kababs. Yes, this was a legit feast. The platter also comes with grilled bell peppers, sliced red onion and slightly spicy sauce which helps cut through the richness of the meats. My favorite were the lamb chops. Not surprising as they are my favorite meat product!
The W in Food & Wine
I enjoyed all three wines (white, amber and red) in the tasting flight, but TBH, I was more focused on handling the multiple platters of food. The servers at Chama Mama seemed quite knowledgeable of their wines and brought me and another guest samples to try when we decided to purchase an additional glass to accompany our main course. They serve an extensive selection of Georgian wines to try, including semi-sweet wines, which I think are quite popular in Georgia.
Always Room For Dessert(s)
We finished the meal with an assortment of distinct desserts. The one I found most interesting was Pelamushi. It’s a two layer grape pudding where a more subtly flavored white grape layer is topped with a purple concord-like layer. It’s typically garnished with walnuts, but ours was nut-free since I’m allergic. Both layers of the pudding were smooth and a bit creamy which was surprising because I imagined the texture would be more like Jello. Haha. IDK why!
The crowd favorite at my table was the Napoleon with it’s layers of crisp pastry and a creamy custard filling. My favorite was the honey cake which has thin layers of cake and filling. I liked the texture because it was creamy and a bit chewy and marshmallow-like. The flavor reminded me of honey grahams in the best possible way. There was also a Gozinaki, a crunchy caramelized walnut sweet which people also enjoyed.
Well, that wraps up my recap of this epic Georgian meal. I really enjoyed the food, drinks and warm and welcoming vibe created by the team at Chama Mama. A special thanks to Joan, the F&W club planning committee and the NYU Stern Alumni group for putting this great event together. I’ll definitely be back to check out some other Georgian dishes and my greatest hits from this meal.
Have you tried Georgian food before? If not I’d encourage you to check out Chama Mama or a Georgian restaurant near you. Do you have any favorite Georgian wines? If so, please let me know in the comments. I’d love to try more at home.
Until next time!