A meal at Neveh Tzedek’s Georgian restaurant Racha.
(photo credit: DANIEL LAILAH)
Lili Ben-Shalom’s elegant restaurant Racha is celebrating the second anniversary of its relocation to Tel Aviv from Jerusalem by marking another milestone: its transformation to an establishment with official kashrut certification.
“The food at Racha was always kosher,” insists Ben-Shalom, “but we were turning away too many potential customers who were insisting on a certificate from the rabbinate.
“An additional benefit,” she adds, “is that I finally get to take weekends off, after years of working seven days a week.”
Ben-Shalom also says that her Saturday night business has picked up tremendously since the changeover. “The increased business after Shabbat is more than making up for closing on Friday nights.”
The transformation has not been without its hiccups, Ben-Shalom concedes.
“We had to clear out all our old stock of wines and spirits, including Georgia’s national drink, chacha. We’ve been without it for a month now,” she told us on the evening of our visit, “and we will not have a new supply until my uncle’s next batch is ready.”
That was unwelcome news, since chacha – a Georgian version of grappa, but smoother – is the star of many of Racha’s specialty cocktails; I had particularly fond memories of the Gomarjos, chacha with sparkling wine, pomegranate juice and lemon.
Indeed, the restaurant’s entire wine list had to be scrapped: imported Georgian wines will no longer be served, replaced by exclusively Israeli kosher wines.
The food menu, meanwhile, remains remarkably unchanged: its three categories are salads (NIS 22-38), pastries (NIS 40-52), and main courses, whose subcategories are stews (NIS 58-88) and grill (NIS 86-186). There are also main dishes that are daily specials, which are explained by the wait staff.
A Georgian meal typically begins with a spread of mezze-style salads; at Racha, the eight appetizer salads may be ordered à la carte, or in a group of four (NIS 110).
The ones we enjoyed the most were Chirhali – sweet and spicy beet cubes with walnuts and herbs, which left a pleasant tingle of heat in the mouth; and Wadis tolma, mangold leaves stuffed with expertly seasoned rice.
The second course of a Georgian meal – the equivalent of the pasta course in an Italian meal – consists of meat fillings encased in either fried or steamed dough. Of the four pastries listed on the Racha menu – served with the house aioli and a vinegary dipping sauce called tchemali – our favorites were Chiburiaki and Hinkali.
The former are crescent-shaped turnovers fried to crisp perfection and filled with nicely seasoned ground beef, while the latter are Chinese-style steamed dumplings filled with a particularly succulent and juicy mixture of chopped veal and beef. It is great fun learning how to hold these dumplings by their stems and taking careful bites in order not to miss a drop of the delicious liquid.
For our main course, we had one dish each of the tavshilim (stews), grilled meats and daily specials. Shechamadi is veal stewed in a sauce of unripened green plums imported from Georgia. It is a particularly pungent dish that will appeal to those who like the sensation of sour.
Foie gras is invariably one of the daily specials; in fact, one of the most popular dishes at Racha is the Duet: beef filet topped with foie gras. The foie gras on our evening was served on a crispy wafer of chiburiak, together with a slice of fresh nectarine, and drizzled with a syrupy concentrate of watermelon juice. The richness of the goose liver was modulated by the sweetness of the fruit, resulting in a symphony of flavors and textures.
Racha is especially proud of its lamb chops; and indeed, the specimens here were extraordinarily meaty, with hardly any bone. Not surprisingly, they were positively succulent.
One of Racha’s signature desserts – churchkhela, a sweet “sausage” of hazelnuts enveloped in a gelatinous wine pudding – was another victim of the interim period of switching the restaurant’s status to “officially” kosher. Fortunately, there was a worthy replacement: Leyla (named after owner Lili) – sweet blini filled with chocolate, nuts and raisins, served alongside a refreshing raspberry sorbet.
Once the chacha stats flowing again, an authentic Georgian experience awaits a wider audience than ever before.The writer was a guest of the restaurant.
1 Ahad Ha’am Street, Tel Aviv.