By Suzanne Parker
Most of the Jewish émigrés from former Soviet republics to Forest Hills and Rego Park arrived from central Asian states of Uzbekistan and Tadjikistan. Their restaurants proliferated in the area, serving their landsmen traditional Bukharan fare of kebabs, samsa (meat filled pastries), plov (rice pilaf), lagman (beef noodle soup). Nothing wrong with that, but we were ready for something different.
Enter Marani, a newish kosher eatery in Rego Park featuring the cuisine of Georgian Jews. Like the Bukharans, the cuisine of the Georgian Jews is very diverse and flavorful, reflecting the influences of centuries of foreign domination. One of the unique aspects of the cuisine includes a devotion to walnuts and walnut-based sauces. Georgian cuisine is also known for its use of wine vinegars, garlic, pepper, cumin and hot chilies. Pomegranate seeds and juice are also used in many ways. Khachpuri, a Georgian obsession, is a flatbread either topped or stuffed with cheese in a variety of iterations.
Because of Marani’s adherence to kashruth (kosher law), it is really two restaurants in one. At street level you’ll find an attractively decorated eatery with a full bar, serving a range of meat and other dishes that contain no dairy. The dairy-friendly downstairs has the feel of a no frills pizzeria serving khachpuri instead of pies.
We started our exploration upstairs. We could have happily made a meal of the vegetarian dips that are offered individually, or in any combination of three. We love Mediterranean dips like hummus and babaganoush, but they were getting a mite boring. It was a real treat to find a whole new Georgian spin on this category of nosh.
The Georgians use walnuts as the backbone of their dips, and the ones we tried all sparkled with flavor. The sliced fried eggplant rolled up with walnut paste and sprinkled with pomegranate seeds was the star of our threesome, but the sweet baby beet salad and savory red beans with walnuts were not too shabby. All had an exotic mmmm—what’s in this — allure.
Be sure to order some Shotis Puri (Georgian bread) with the dips and salads. It’s a fresh out of the over baguette-like loaf with skinny ends and a thicker midsection like a boa constrictor that’s had too much to eat. It’s surprising that bread doesn’t automatically come with dinner, but with generally modest prices, we won’t begrudge them an extra $3 for bread. Perhaps it’s a Georgian custom.
Harcho, a slurp-worthy tomato and pepper-based soup purported to be made with “rice, lamb and love” would suffice for a very satisfying meal preceded by one of the walnut based salads, even though it was listed under soups rather than entrees. Chakapuli, braised lamb bones, claimed bragging rights to containing “tarragon, herbs, tkemali (spicy Georgian tomato sauce) and magic.” You have to love strong herbal flavors of tarragon, coriander and not mind bits of meat on lots of bones. This is one of those dishes you’re either going to love or hate.
For a hot appetizer, definitely try the blinchiki—sort of a meat-filled fried spring roll with heft. Pass on the soko ketsze, baked mushrooms in a clay pot. Despite their appealing presentation, they tasted more like an ingredient than a dish.
Chicken Tabaka is an iconic Georgian dish. To create this dish, a baby hen is seared with loads of garlic and herbs in a cast iron pan. It is served over garlic fries and with quartered sour green tomatoes. It has a bar-food indulgent feel. Khinkali, Georgian style dumplings with beef, lamb and veal are the zaftig cousins of Tibetan momo. The six, very substantial dumplings come unadorned, and though the meat is thoroughly seasoned, one of the sauces sold separately like tkemali or satsebela would not be amiss.
Downstairs is a whole different world. The offerings are limited to various styles of khachapuri and a few miscellaneous ruglach-like pastries. We dove into an order of Adjaruli, or “the one with an egg in it.” Watching it being made in front of us from scratch was half the fun. The rolled dough is formed into a boat shape which is filled with cheese. When it comes sizzling hot out of the oven, a couple of raw eggs are broken into the center followed by a healthy glob of butter. The diner then takes a fork, and scrambles the eggs together with the hot cheese. The result falls somewhere between a gooey cheese omelet nestled in a loaf of chewy bread, and a loosely set quiche.
The Bottom Line
Marani offers yet another Queens opportunity to try something new and delicious. The ambiance is attractive, if a bit over lit, and the staff is welcoming. Best of all, the check won’t give you heartburn.
Suzanne Parker is the TimesLedger’s restaurant critic and author of “Eating Like Queens: A Guide to Ethnic Dining in America’s Melting Pot, Queens, N.Y.” She can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.
97-26 63rd Road
Rego Park, NY 11374
Price Range: Appetizers: $6.50—12, Entrees: $12–36
Cuisine: Kosher Georgian
Setting: Stylish upstairs meat restaurant. Utilitarian counter service downstairs for khachpuri
Service: Table service upstairs, counter service downstairs
Hours: Monday – Thursday, 12 pm-10 pm; Friday, 12 pm-one hour before Shabbat (sundown); Saturday, End of Shabbat–Midnight; Sunday, 12 pm-11 pm
Alcohol: Full bar
Credit cards: Yes
Noise level: Acceptable
Handicap accessible: Yes (on upper level)