At Aragvi, the staples of Eastern Europe meet the flavours of the Far East.
When the restaurant Aragvi opened its doors two years ago, the Georgian community was so overwhelmingly receptive that it pushed the Pasternak family’s hospitality to its limit. “They acted like it was their own house,” recalls Aragvi’s manager (and chef Boris’s daughter), Biana Pasternak, who still sounds shocked by the behaviour. “They brought their own alcohol, sat down at tables reserved by others, [and] helped themselves to drinks from the fridge.” Largely, this was a culture clash between Georgian passions and North American reserve, but at its core was an outpouring of joy. Georgian food now had a home in Toronto.
Georgia is a small, fiercely proud nation in the Caucasus region, situated at the crossroads of Central Asia and Eastern Europe. It is known for its wildly diverse climate (sub-tropical beaches and snowy alpine peaks), a western economic tilt, and, most famously, a culinary culture that holds good food, wine, and hosting as a virtue to be celebrated. The Georgian community in Toronto is quite small—just several thousand, according to officials with the country’s embassy in Ottawa—most of whom came in the years following the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the recent war between Georgia and Russia.
The man who brought Georgian food to Toronto, Boris Pasternak, was actually raised in nearby Azerbaijan, where he began cooking at 14, rising quickly to become the youngest winner, at 16, of a Top Chef–style contest across the entire Soviet Union. His connection to Georgia came from his wife, Laura, who is from the capital, Tbilisi (and doesn’t cook professionally). In 1979, the couple moved to Israel (both are Jewish) and lived there for a decade with their two children, until they settled in Toronto in 1989.
Pasternak has cooked at a number of restaurants, banquet halls, and even bath houses around Toronto’s former-Soviet community, but it was his reputation for making authentic Georgian dishes that set him apart. Whenever there was a wedding, banquet, or celebration with the city’s Georgians, they sought him out. The idea for Aragvi came from two Georgian contractors renovating Pasternak’s condominium, who practically begged him to open a Georgian restaurant.
Thankfully, Pasternak heeded their pleas, and his small restaurant, in an unremarkable strip mall on Sheppard, west of Bathurst, has already attracted a loyal following. They come for a cuisine that mixes the hearty staples of Eastern Europe with unexpected ingredients and flavours from the Far East: pkhali, a shredded beet salad, spiked with crushed walnuts, garlic, and wine vinegar; izpanahi, a cold spinach pate, also with walnuts (a staple of the Georgian kitchen); and rolls of baked eggplant flesh filled with a creamy walnut pâté that’s dotted with tart pomegranate seeds. Plenty of sharp cilantro ties together translucent diced onions, chopped green beans, and scrambled eggs in a salad that’s hearty enough to be a main course.
No dish epitomizes Georgia’s culinary crossroads better than khinkalis—the fat, steamed dumplings filled with minced pork and beef, black and red pepper, and coriander seed. “You grab it by the little hat of dough on top,” instructs Biana, taking a small bite out of the side and sucking out the precious meat juices, before they spill onto the plate. Then you eat the rest in a few slurping bites, before racing your tablemate for the next one.
It’s impossible to sit in Aragvi for any period of time without succumbing to the aroma of freshly baked Georgian breads drifting out of the kitchen. One of the most popular is Adjarian hachapuri, an oval cheese bread with a nearly raw, coddled egg in the centre, cooking and melting from the bread’s heat, along with a sizeable chunk of butter. Eric, the Pasternaks’ son, recommended Imeretinskoe hachapuri, a round “Georgian pizza” that’s a provincial specialty. It comes out of the oven golden and glistening with brushed butter, and each slice reveals a gooey layer of salty feta and mozzarella. Order two: You’ll want one when you get home.
It’s also worth saving some bread to sop up the gravy from Aragvi’s stews, especially the chakhokbili, which is a clay pot of boneless chicken braised for two hours with tomatoes, onions, garlic, and white wine. It smells like cilantro, and is so tender and flavourful, that you’ll question why you eat chicken any other way.
These days, the restaurant’s client base is more diverse and, frankly, better behaved. There are Russians who come to revisit the nostalgic tastes of their summer vacations on the Georgian coast, and destination diners who heard about the restaurant online. Even though Georgian immigration is increasing, says Biana, they are becoming a smaller contingent on weekends.
“We weren’t aiming for Georgians,” she says, referring to their target market when her family opened the restaurant. “They already know their food. Others don’t.”
Aragvi, 832 Sheppard Ave. W., 416-792-2613.