Submitted By Simon Hardy Butler, November 7, 2016-6:05 pm
The dapper figure stands receptively at Old Tbilisi Garden’s entrance, its fluffy black headdress as unusual to see on this part of Bleecker Street as a well-fed student without a cell phone. But this humanoid isn’t alive—it’s a mannequin, clad in spirited yet debonair attire one must assume is Georgian in origin, as OTG specializes in the cuisine of that region. Perhaps the display is a little unsubtle, yet it’s easy to forgive such manifestations of national pride, as the food within is often quite munchable. Were that not the case, you might be given to chalking up the effigy as mere culinary click bait, a ruse to get folks inside by way of costume-driven curiosity. For it takes more than a uniformed statue to spur New Yorkers to gastronomic action; though we may not have seen it all, we know how to recognize a lure. And that’s key to differentiating quality from dross, novelty from timelessness, good taste from bad.
Thankfully, at Old Tbilisi Garden, such assessments veer toward the positive, owing to a combination of savory chow, helpful service and pleasant ambiance—the latter highlighted by a garden-style outdoor seating area in the back that’s festooned with rocks, plants and a slim, dainty waterfall flowing down the stones. All of that is much more atmospheric than the modest brick walls and unadventurous artwork that decorates much of the rest of the interior, yet the place remains casually elegant, with crisp if spare table settings and a careful attention to comfort. You could do a lot worse.
To start your meal, you’d be hard-pressed to do much better than order a bottle of tarragon soda, an antifreeze-green elixir that’s delightfully sweet and puzzlingly herbal, like a tonic in which someone steeped his grandmother’s potpourri. The wine list offers a tidy selection of Georgian vintages, and they go well with the food—especially the dish known as Tolma, meaty stuffed grape leaves that are as soft and voluptuous as fruit on the vine. Meanwhile, the Satsivi with chicken appetizer may be as unusual as you’ll get in this eatery: The chunks of toothsome fowl are drenched in a pale walnut sauce that is feisty with garlic; fascinatingly, this specialty is served cold, making it all the more intriguing. Taking the exotica down a notch are the baked goods, which make up a significant part of the menu and range from the slightly dull, pizza-esque Megruli Khachapuri, a disc of charred, thick and cheesy bread, to the Adjaruli Khachapuri, a picturesque “boat” of oven-fresh dough brimming with melted cheese and crowned with a poached egg … after your waiter stirs the mixture up as if it were wet cake ingredients in a bowl, you pare off a hunk of the gooey receptacle and scarf it down. Heavy, but enjoyable, and certainly an interesting, different experience. No question there’s a lot to like.
You won’t reconsider that observation even if you opt for the Tabaka, a bland plate of fried capon that’s not crispy or salty enough to warrant exhaustive rumination … despite the fact that it’s topped with all-too-necessary red onion and served beside a ramekin of moistness-supplying mahogany sauce. More appealing is the Chicken Mtsvadi—sizable, juicy nuggets of the grilled bird—as well as the titillating stews made with lamb and other meats that bubble in their bowls like those tar pits you used to visit in La Brea, CA, when you were a kid.
Obviously, the selections at OTG are a lot more palatable.
Desserts are less enthralling. The Napoleon, a square of pastry and cream that could potentially stand in for a building block on 47th Street, is ponderous and simplistic, while the triangles of Ideali, a confection made in part of honey and walnuts, are overly sweet. You’re heartened, however, by the bill: Mains often circulate around the 20s, and starters in general are less. Count in the big portions and patient service, and you’ve got a repast that, if not necessarily a bargain, is well within economic reasonability. Denizens of this intimate neighborhood seem to agree, and as the night wears on, you may see them increase in number off to your side. Have no fear: Like you, they’re just looking for a cool bottle of tarragon soda and are perfectly content with the silence of the mannequin outside.
Because it’s the amenities inside that really matter. And those are things OTG has no shortage of—no matter which way the garden waterfall flows.