Racha is the highland area in the northwestern corner of western Georgia. It was a sovereign state bounded by the Black Sea on the west, Russiaon the north, Turkeyon the southwest, Armeniaon the south and Azerbaijanon the southwest. It was annexed by the Russian Empire at the beginning of the 19th century, again by Soviet Russia in 1921 and declared independence in 1991.
A year ago Pesach, a Georgian-born family decided to open an authentic Georgian restaurant in downtown Jerusalem with the foods mama and grandma used to make. They discovered two store rooms dating from the British mandate, about 50 years old, which once housed paper.
As you enter and come down a few steps, you immediately feel as if you have entered a special world. You are in a room which has a family carpet on the floor and large dark wood tables and chairs; the next room has tables for four and a bar with 18 black wood and ivory padded chairs. The two rooms seat 70. The lit chandeliers add to the ambience and give the rooms a very homey feeling. In the back is a private dining area which seats 15.
Up some steps off the entrance room is a smoking room with a marble-topped bar seating 12 and a stairway to a balcony for more seating and conversation.
Originally, the chef was mama, Tina Shimshelashvili, supervising other Georgian chefs; then around December, mama decided she could not continue and son, Yisrael Shachar, who had worked in a few restaurants over the years, started to learn to cook from her. Not only was he able to chef the traditional Georgian food of their homeland, he had achieved the flavors of his grandmother.
In April, the Hebrew newspaper, Maariv, rated Yisrael one of the ten best chefs in the country.
Customers are warmly greeted as they enter and are seated by daughter, Lili ben Shalom, who does the marketing and publicity for the restaurant. She also goes from table to table to make sure customers understand what to order. The helpful, efficient waitress was equally well informed to discuss the menu.
Chef Yisrael of Racha Restaurant – Photo by Barry A Kaplan, Jerusalem
In traditional, hospitable Georgian style, we were served a variety of seven appetizers—flavored atchechili (stewed eggplant with nuts and herbs on top); agapsandali (spring stewed vegetables with nuts and herbs); eggplant rolls filled with nuts and garnished with pomegranate seeds; chicken kindezmary (chicken breast strips with a ground nut sauce); patrigani (eggplant layered and filled with nuts and herbs); red beet root with nuts and vegetables; and mazwabi (tomatoes, cucumbers, cabbage and carrots pickled in a Georgian marinade). These salads range from 16 to 27NIS each ($4.03-$6.81), and each is sufficient for two to share. All are unique and tasty, many garnished with a combination of chopped cilantro and parsley. There are an additional seven on the menu from which to choose.
The next course was chiburiaki, a fried pastry crescent of a very thin dough with a spicy beef filling (two for 39NIS/$9.83). This was served with tachemali, a green plum sauce, delicious but not sweet. My companion loved the spicy taste of the beef inside which was in contrast to the appetizers, but I found it a little too sharp for my palate.
There are seven main courses and we tried salianka — a generous meat and vegetable goulash — you could cut with a fork which absolutely melted in your mouth (82 NIS/$20.68). It is served with rice or bread but we were still savoring the shutespuri, oval-shaped home-made bread served with the salads. There are seven other main courses, ranging from 54 to 98NIS ($13.62-$24.72) plus two fish dishes and four entrees from the grill for the less adventuresome (78-148NIS/$19.67-$37.33).
Selection of salads with Georgian bread – Photo by Barry A Kaplan, Jerusalem
The chef also presented us with his specialty, not on the menu, baby lamb neck filled with rice, pine nuts, raisins and plums with stewed eggplant, tomatoes, carrots and sweet potatoes.
There are two desserts (36 NIS and 38 NIS/$9.08-$9.58) offered but we opted for tea (served from a large china teapot into tiny tea cups) with cookies (36 NIS/$9.08) that were extraordinary—one a long roll sprinkled with confectioners’ sugar and tasting like eir kichel and the other, a triangular size crispy flat cookie.
Every dish is attractively presented and the eating is a culinary experience.
Important to know
Every Wednesday evening, there is live Georgian music. Fridays, from 2 p.m. until before Shabbat, there is a Kabbalat Shabbat with musicians and a singer and a 30NIS ($15.31) cover charge. Sunday evening there are Greek musicians entertaining. Soon, the bar will have its own menu and there will be a Friday brunch served beginning at 10 a.m.
Private parties can be accommodated every day until 5 p.m.
Chef Yisrael in white coat with assistant – Photo by Barry A Kaplan, Jerusalem
For those that want to learn about Georgian food, Racha is conducting kitchen workshops with Chef Yisrael. A 45-minute class making (and then eating) two Georgian dishes is 220 NIS ($55.49); an hour and a half class making and eating four Georgian dishes is 320 NIS ($80.72).
The writer and photographer were guests of the restaurant.
Sybil Kaplan is a journalist, food writer and cookbook author who lives in Jerusalem and leads walks in Machaneh Yehudah, the Jewish produce market.