Khachapuri: The Cheese Boat that Put Georgia on the Map

By Food Institute Student Fellow Annabel Epstein ’18

A little after a year of opening, Compass Rose, the international small plates focused restaurant, sold its 10,000th order of Khachapuri (pronounced ha-tcha-poo-ree), a classic Georgian street food dish that has since popped up on restaurant menus across D.C.

Photo Courtesy of Compass Rose’s Twitter

Georgia, a country at the intersection of Europe and Asia, is a former Soviet republic that’s home to Caucasus Mountain villages and Black Sea beaches.

A cousin to pizza and naan, Khachapuri is the Georgian catch-all word for bread filled with cheese, and in Georgia, it’s inescapable. There are over 40 regional varieties across the country – they can be round, square, boat-shaped, filled with an oozy and elastic cheese called Sulguni, or a briny sheep’s milk cheese called Bryndza. Outside of Georgia, the most common variety found (and the one served at Compass Rose) is Adjaruli Khachapuri: a boat shaped, yeasty dough filled with molten, sputtering cheese and crowned with a barely cooked egg, and a healthy hunk of butter. Now served at five restaurants across D.C., ranging from a wine bistro in Arlington to a Russian restaurant in Dupont, diners don’t have to track down a Georgian restaurant to try it.

“I think the appeal of Khachapuri is that it’s definitely different – people feel like they’re trying something new, a new cuisine, but it incorporates everyone’s favorite things: cheese, butter and eggs surrounded by bread. It’s a really messy, hot dish that is communal and fun to share with friends. It’s also eye-catching and a crowd pleaser,” said Tim Ebner, a freelance food writer for Eater, Washington City Paper and Edible DC.

To make the dish in the U.S., chefs replace the traditionally used Georgian Sulguni cheese with a combination of mozzarella, feta and ricotta. But Khachapuri isn’t the only Georgian item now crowning restaurant menus stateside. Georgian wines grace the aisles of Whole Foods locations in D.C., as well as wine lists around the city such as Italian neighborhood favorite the Red Hen.

“D.C. is probably the best market for Georgian wine in the U.S. I really can’t understate the role Compass Rose has played with Khachapuri. Prior to Rose Privete [the owner of Compass Rose], people didn’t really know what Georgian food or wine even was,” said Noel Brockett, the director of operations and sales at Georgian Wine House, a prominent Georgian wine importer that supplies restaurants and liquor stores with Georgian wines across 40 states. “Investors back then didn’t want to back a Georgian restaurant. Rose wanted to start a restaurant to put Khachapuri on the menu. She did that at Compass Rose, and brought national attention to the dish.”

Wine is as much of a Georgian success story as Khachapuri. Georgia is recognized as the birthplace of wine – it is the oldest known winemaking area, with a living winemaking tradition of over 8,000 years. Growing over 500 varieties of grapes, it’s a compelling region for sommeliers and wine lovers alike. While Georgia used to export over 80 percent of its wine to Russia, in 2006 the Russian government placed a ban on importing Georgian wine due to a diplomatic conflict.

Georgian wineries scrambled to find a new market, and looked towards Europe and the U.S. Most of the wines Georgia exported

A traditional winery in Georgia

to Russia were mass produced and low quality. To compete in Western markets, Georgian winemakers had to think about producing higher quality wines. Stepping away from mass production and quick fermentation, winemakers looked back to the traditional Georgian ways of producing wine – known as Qvevri — where wine is aged in large earthenware, which are either buried below ground or set into the floors of large wine cellars.

“The wine culture is so important to the identity of Georgia, and it’s kind of a good entry point for getting the country recognized — first wine, then food, and then maybe investing in Georgia,” said Mamuka Tsereteli, the owner of Georgian Wine House. He moved from Georgia when it was still under Soviet rule to the Washington area in 1994 as a diplomat, and has long been envisioning of going to a Georgian restaurant where he can drink his country’s wine.

Finally, Tsereteli’s wish came true: Supra, D.C.’s first Georgian restaurant, opened in November 2017 to much excitement and curiosity. Co-owners Jonathan and Laura Nelms’ spacious 4,000-square-foot restaurant is helmed by Malkhaz Maisashvili, the former chef of the Embassy of Georgia in Washington. Serving only Georgian wines and spirits, as well as a full spread of Georgian food such as Khinkali (soup dumplings), Chkmeruli (Georgian garlic chicken) and a full spread of Georgian cheeses, salads, pickles and vegetable pâtés. Naturally, Supra boasts six different kinds of Khachapuri.

Owner Jonathan Nelms, a partner at Baker McKenzie law firm, is not Georgian, but he’s had a lifelong connection to the country. Growing up in central Florida, Nelms befriended a Soviet-Georgian exchange student who came to his high school in 1989. Years later, Nelms found himself working in Moscow through his work, where Georgian restaurants are as ubiquitous as Mexican ones are in the States. Nelms would frequent Georgian restaurants, and traveled the country itself a few times. When he returned to the U.S., he and his wife/co-owner Laura Nelms found themselves missing the food. Although there had been talks of opening a Georgian restaurant in D.C. for a while, the Nelms couple believed D.C. was finally ready in 2017.

“There’s a thriving Georgian community in the DMV area, and with the World Bank, State Department, and many ex-pats from that part of the world living here, there seemed to be a big appetite for Georgian cuisine. I would imagine there are more people here that have lived in or near Georgia than almost anywhere else,” said Jonathan. “Add to that the number of Americans who have lived and worked in Russia and elsewhere in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, where Georgian food is as well known and loved as Italian, French, Chinese, or Japanese food are here, and you have a ton of people in this area who are familiar with – and have been missing – Georgian food.”

Jessica Sidman, the dining editor of Washingtonian magazine said that D.C.’s diverse dining scene and people’s hunger to try new cuisines allowed for Georgian food to flourish in the District.

“The D.C. area has a large Korean, Vietnamese and Ethiopian population. Now you’re seeing other niche cuisines pop up as a larger growth in the food scene – whether it’s Georgian or Filipino, people are just more willing to try new cuisines that they haven’t had before,” said Sidman.