Khachapuri and Kharcho, Gone Rogue

When chef Michael Landrum began offering a second menu inspired by flavors from across the former Soviet Union and the Silk Road inside his Arlington, VA restaurant Ray’s Hell Burger, he encountered some harsh criticism, but not from the usual sources. “I’ve had several Russian women of a certain generation tell me in the kindest, most genial ways that I have not, nor could I possibly ever, do anything right,” says Landrum with a bemused smile.

If you’re nostalgic for dishes you’ve eaten in Moscow, Tashkent, or Tbilisi and are hoping to recreate that experience at The Tasty Dug-Out (the name Landrum has given to his restaurant-within-a-restaurant), you’ll walk away disappointed. “This is food inspired by flavors I’ve enjoyed in that part of the world,” Landrum explains. The sub-head on the menu reads “Modern Zemblan Cuisine,” an homage to the imaginary setting of Nabokov’s 1962 novel Pale Fire (the title of which is itself a reference to a line of Shakespeare’s that is often interpreted as a metaphor for creativity and inspiration).

The “dug-out” refers to Landrum’s take on Ajaran khachapuri (the shape of which resembles a dug-out canoe). He offers a classic version (gussied up with browned butter infused with ground marigold petals and garnished with a dollop of spicy adjika pepper paste) and several add-ons, including steak tartare, wild mushrooms, smoked salmon and salmon caviar. In what I consider to be a stroke of genius, he recognized the affinity between Ajaran khachapuri (a bread bowl filled with molten cheese in which an egg is poached) with the Middle Eastern/North African dish shakshuka (eggs poached in a spicy sauce of tomatoes, peppers, and onions, often scooped up with bread). His addictive “katch-a-shookah” marries the two concepts, with a cheese-stuffed crust holding a caldera of cumin-scented tomato sauce, olives, marigold butter, and green harissa (Moroccan chili sauce).

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Khachapuri with steak tartare. Photo credit: Marc St.Hilaire, on Instagram @sainthilm

“With burgers and steaks, if you just do what you’re supposed to do, they’re going to come out great,” says Landrum. “This menu is my opportunity to play around and be a little more creative.” In addition to khachapuri, the menu includes a few Mediterranean and Slavic snacks to start your meal, grilled meat entrees served with fries and salad, and a small selection of sweets to round things out.

The concept is certainly a departure for Landrum, whose other DC-area restaurants (Ray’s the Steaks in Arlington, VA; Ray’s the Classics in Silver Spring, MD; and two locations of Ray’s Hell Burger, one in DC and one in Arlington) feature more standard American fare, albeit with some unusual variations available. His ventures have earned wide popular acclaim, not to mention the presidential thumbs-up: President Obama and VP Joe Biden visited Ray’s Hell Burger in 2009 and Obama took Russia’s then-president Dmitri Medvedev there when Medvedev visited the US in 2010.

Another quirk of the Tasty Dug-Out’s menu is its wide-ranging tea selection, which takes pride of place at the top of the page before the alcohol. It may seem out of place to some on a menu dominated by savory dishes, but it evokes the spirit of the chaikhana, or Central Asian teahouse, where people go to let the cares of the day melt away as they sip tea, nibble snacks, catch up with friends, and maybe even indulge in a postprandial snooze. (Do try not to fall asleep in your chair at the restaurant, though.) The blooming teas are visually stunning: watch the flowers that scent the tea slowly open and “bloom” inside the glass teapot.

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Honey cake with cream and berry jam. Photo credit: Marc St.Hilaire, on Instagram @sainthilm

While you’re doing things a little differently, go ahead and save your vodka for dessert. My dining partner and I were particularly taken with the Cathead honeysuckle vodka from Mississippi, which goes down real smooth. We sipped it while devouring a slice of dense honey-sweetened cake, layered with cream and topped with berry jam.

The Tasty Dugout is open inside Ray’s Hell Burger (1650 Wilson, Blvd., Arlington, VA) from 5:30 pm to close on Tuesdays-Fridays and from noon to close on Saturdays and Sundays.

A Night in Georgia at Bazaar Spices

Bazaar Spices is the only shop in DC where you can find Georgian herbs and spices like blue fenugreek, adjika, and ground marigold. Join me there for a Georgian happy hour and cooking lesson on Thursday, May 12. I’ll show you how to make your own khinkali dumplings and prepare badrijani nigvzit (fried eggplant rolls with walnut-garlic filling). Enjoy a spread of Georgian appetizers, sip wines made from native grapes, listen to live folk music, and learn how to use Georgian herbs and spices to add depth and color to your own cooking, no matter what type of cuisine you’re making. You’ll take home a Georgian spice sampler and recipes to use them in your own kitchen.

A Night In Georgia: Wine, Spices, Music, and Snacks
May 12, 2016, 6:00 – 7:30 pm
Bazaar Spices, 2130 8th St. NW, Washington, DC (Atlantic Plumbing Building)
$65 per person
Get your tickets

 Hope to see you there!

Attention, Jewish Russian Speakers in DC

You’re invited to the Georgian Embassy on Wednesday, March 2 for an evening of Georgian food, wine (poured by yours truly), and conversation hosted by JDC Entwine, the young professionals arm of the prominent Jewish humanitarian organization. The guided part of the evening will focus on Jewish life in the Caucasus today, and I’ll talk about traditional Georgian winemaking and teach you a few phrases that may come in handy if you decide to go on the trip to Georgia that JDC Entwine is offering this summer (or just want to keep in your back pocket for future reference).

When: Wednesday, March 2, 7- 9 pm
Where: Embassy of Georgia, 1824 R St. NW, Washington, DC
Cost: $15
Get your tickets here!

Four-Course Ajaran/Turkish Dinner at Ankara Restaurant

I spent five months living in Batumi in Georgia’s southwestern Ajara region, so I’m particularly excited to be partnering with Ankara Restaurant and Georgian Wine House on a four-course dinner featuring regional dishes from Ajara paired with Georgian wines. The cuisine of this mountainous region is somewhat distinct from that of the rest of Georgia due in large part to its historical ties with Turkey and the Ottoman Empire. Ajara is known for its wide variety of dairy-based dishes, its citrus orchards, and its rocky Black Sea coastline.

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A homestyle Ajaran dinner with my Batumi host family in 2013

Ajarans share their Turkish neighbors’ love of stuffed grape leaves, yogurt soups and sauces, and baklava. Their cuisine also reflects the tart, herbal, and nutty Georgian flavor palate, so their cooking includes plenty of walnuts in both sweet and savory dishes, garlic, pomegranate, coriander, blue fenugreek, dried marigold, and mounds of cilantro and other herbs.

Come eat with friends and friendly strangers at an intimate wine dinner at Ankara in Washington, DC:

Ajaran/Turkish Crossroads Dinner Wednesday, February 3, 2016
6:30 – 9:00 pm
Ankara Restaurant
1320 19th St. NW
Washington, DC
$65 per person including four courses, copious wine, tax, and gratuity
Tickets available here

Seats are limited, so get your tickets early! This is an equal opportunity meal for vegetarians.

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Vegetables on display for sale at a Batumi market

The Ajaran/Turkish Crossroads dinner is the first in a series of special dinners Ankara is planning to host over the coming months. The March dinner will feature regional dishes and wines rom northern and central Turkey, while the April dinner will see the restaurant transformed into a traditional Turkish meyhane, with roaming musicians and a meal composed of meze, salads and fish dishes paired with regional wines and raki, Turkey’s national anise-flavored spirit.

Guided Georgian Wine Tasting

Georgian wines have been making their way onto wine lists at some of DC’s trendiest restaurants lately, but the wines themselves are anything but faddish. Georgia is home to the world’s oldest continuous winemaking tradition, stretching back more than 7,000 years. Its most talented vintners are making natural wines using native grapes and ancient fermentation methods that yield complex flavors you won’t find elsewhere.

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Join Wendy Stuart of Food Works Group and Jenny Holm of The Georgian Table for a guided tasting and discover the fascinating stories behind these one-of-a-kind wines.

Guided Georgian Wine Tasting
Five wines plus light snacks and sweets
Tuesday, Jan. 12, 7:30-9:30 p.m.
Private residence near U St. NW in Washington, DC
(Address will be sent after ticket purchase)
$40 per person

THIS EVENT HAS SOLD OUT

PLEASE NOTE:  If you need to cancel your reservation, please notify us as far in advance as possible. We will happily provide a refund if we are able to fill your spot(s) with others.