By Cheryl Baehr
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Before I even sat down at Café Lavash, a Georgian restaurant located on Olive, a few concerns were spinning around in my head. The first involved the possible presence of borscht, a concoction whose main ingredient, beets, gives me the willies (the result, perhaps, of being force-fed cold ones of the canned variety at age seven). Fortunately, Lavash doesn't offer borscht.
And although I was ecstatic about not having to face the demon beet, I had been warned about another potential hurdle: One travel guidebook suggests that when vacationing in the republics of the former Soviet Union, travelers should avoid restaurants that smell like shoes or boiled cabbage. It's sound advice in regard to most cuisines, but no matter, because this wasn't a problem at Café Lavash. Rather, and oddly, the restaurant had no odor at all. But I soon learned that the absence of aroma was related to the paucity of customers. Nothing was cooking. Once we put in our order, the smell of kebabs on the grill came our way, triggering the appropriate Pavlovian response.
In a different life, the space that Café Lavash occupies was probably a pizza parlor. Now it has been reincarnated as a plasticized, Americanized, fantasized version of a rural Georgian farmhouse. The "exposed brick" paneling is covered with wine-barrel tops and other rustic decorations. Bunches of plastic grapes hang from the rafters -- a rather incongruous visual garnishment, considering the restaurant doesn't have a wine list (which is a shame, because the country's wine growing history goes back at least 7,000 years). The sound system plays a mixture of light '70s rock (the Captain & Tennille) and what sounds like postcommunist Georgian Top 40.
Sophisticated? Not exactly, but taken as a whole, Lavash's Georgian facsimile is charming and amiable enough, as are Lavash's plates, which read, "America, land that I love."
314-872-8882. Hours: 10:30 a.m.-8 p.m. Tue.-Fri.; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Sat.; noon-7 p.m. Sun.
The food itself is definitely Georgian -- the country's areas historically produce large crops of fruits, nuts and vegetables, and that's obviously reflected in the region's palate. Chef/owner Edward Kiknadze places strong emphasis on walnuts and fresh herbs, specifically cilantro and mint. And although the prices are a little dear for "ethnic" food ($10-$16 for entrées), it's still significantly cheaper and safer than actually going to Georgia. Diners should take note, however, that Café Lavash does not currently take credit cards.
On my first visit, I started with appetizers of badrijani, bhali, Tbilisi salad and marinated, pickled red cabbage. The food is served simply and presented well; the cabbage came in the middle of a large plate, its purple surrounded by the earthier tones of other dishes. The badrijani, fried eggplant rolls stuffed with walnuts, suggested baba ghannouj and had a creamy texture. The first bite of the badrijani revealed a pleasant smokiness, quickly followed by the zing of garlic. Our order of bhali ("seasoned spinach" on the menu) was a dark-green mass mixed with walnuts, parsley, cilantro, fried onion and eggs. I took a taste and then, for professional reasons only, a second. Anything that looks this unappetizing -- like a mixture of shredded grass and mud -- had better taste pretty darn exciting, and it didn't. It wasn't that the dish was bad; it was just so nondescript. While the other appetizers competed for attention, the bhali just sat there, crying for a few pinches of flavor.
Both salads were excellent. Definitely try the Tbilisi salad, a mixture of sweet red peppers, fried onion, eggplant, cilantro and parsley. Like the badrijani, the Tbilisi salad had some smoke, and there's no need to order both, but either is worth a try. Kiknadze's "Georgian style garden salad" was simply fresh cucumber and tomato slices topped with onion and parsley and dressed with a vinaigrette. It made a nice accompaniment to dinner, given that the outside temperature was in the high 90s. Surprisingly, the pickled cabbage was good, despite the description on the menu -- "cabbage marinated in wood barrels with red beets." But Kiknadze's pickled cabbage went a long way toward curing my beetophobia. The dish comes in large and small sizes; unless you're some sort of cabbage nut, order the small.
Café Lavash also offers one soup, harcho -- described on the menu as "authentic Georgian style" -- a beef-and-rice concoction. The soup was pleasing, similar to a good, homemade beef-barley with a nice kick of heat after every bite.
The restaurant offers six choices of entrées: lamb shish kebab, lamb-loin shish kebab, pork-loin shish kebab, ground-beef kebab (notice a trend?), whole Cornish hen and dumplings.
The dumplings are flat-out terrific. Although the menu says they're filled with ground beef, our waitress claimed the kitchen used veal, and, at least on the night we tried them, I was inclined to believe her. Each dumpling is a rib-sticking blast of flavor that avoids the perilous trap that snags many dumpling makers: understuffing. The fresh-parsley-covered dumplings are plump and low, their seams pinched prettily together. Kiknadze has a pleasantly heavy hand with the pepper grinder, and the dish is mildly spicy.
We also tried three kebabs: pork and ground beef, which are on the menu, and a chicken kebab that was listed only as a lunch special. The Lula kebab, skewered with ground beef, was excellent, served in a mellow tomato-based sauce with fresh dill. Each mouthful went well with the rice, though chasing the warm kebab with the cold side, a green-bean salad, was disconcerting. The other two kebabs were also worthwhile: tender and moist, perfectly cooked with a slight touch of charcoal crust. At least one of each of the half-dozen pieces of pork and chicken was fat ridden, though; Kiknadze should trim his cuts of meat a little more precisely.
Because Café Lavash bills itself as a "bread & kitchen," it is no surprise that the desserts are baked. If you like pastries, order the piroshki (think turnover) or the mutaka, which was filled with a walnut-and-honey paste.
If you are interested in ordering something savory from Kiknadze's bakery, consider the khachapuri, a rounded loaf stuffed with homemade cheese. The Lavash bread, a naturally leavened flat bread, tasted a little bit like a sourdough pizza crust.
Café Lavash is still obviously struggling to get its feet on the ground in at least a few ways. Both times I ate there, the restaurant was empty, and the revamped menu, a price increase and a recent name change (from Lavash to Café Lavash), makes me wonder whether the restaurant will still be open in six months. I hope it is, because the food is the kind of tasty, hearty food that you want to eat when the weather gets colder and the days get shorter.