Unrated during the pandemic
Just my luck: Washington welcomed a new source for the raft of comfort several months ago. It’s called Tabla, and it’s a sibling to the Georgian restaurant Supra, introduced three years ago by Jonathan and Laura Nelms.
The establishments are relatives but not clones. Supra, in Shaw, is the more serious, starting with a long menu. Tabla is more relaxed in every way, from the liberties it takes with Georgian cooking to a design that finds dumplings replacing stars in a whimsical reimagining of the D.C. flag. Indeed, the younger restaurant, in Park View near Howard University, looks as if it were created with a pandemic in mind. My sole in-person visit found more seating outside than in, and garage doors rolled up, negating the need to touch a handle and promoting air circulation.
There is no one way to make khachapuri, although the most sought-after version in Washington is probably the boat shape featuring a combination of cheeses to which butter and an egg are added at the table. While being respectful of tradition, chef Lonnie Zoeller, who comes to the gig from Supra, incorporates familiar-to-Washington toppings, among them Mexican street corn and Maryland crab. The latter version is spread with a cheesy dip that fits in Georgian saffron and spicy Svanuri salt, the topping allowed to melt before the lump crab is added, so you can see and taste the seafood, not just its rich white canvas. The beauty award goes to khachapuri costumed in pulled pork, pomegranate seeds, purple cabbage and a barbecue sauce, a colorful kitchen sink that also has flavor in its favor.
Khachapuri might lead you to Tabla, but it’s hardly the only reason to make the restaurant’s acquaintance. Khinkali are major comforts, too. The appetizer is served as three or six pieces, with or without meat. Forgo knife and fork and eat the dumplings as Georgians do — with the fingers. Simply hold them by their top knot, take a small bite from the bottom, suck up any juices and move on to the filling. Those I’ve tried — ground beef and spinach, roasted sweet potato made luscious with four different cheeses — encourage further exploration. Veteran khinkali eaters know to set aside the hard stems. More room for more dumplings!
The grill provides pleasures, too. The ground lamb kebab is my pick of the bunch. Seasoned with an alphabet of spices, blue fenugreek and caraway included, the rope of meat is so soft, your teeth can take a time out. A fan of grilled flatbread supports the meat, which is sparked with sliced red onions. The only lift the lamb needs before you pounce is a swipe of dark green ajika, the bold Georgian condiment fueled with cilantro, parsley and peppers.
Dishes “from the garden” offset any overdose by dough. (Georgian food is hearty food.) Pickled cabbage is especially good with a bread bowl or dumplings. A richer companion is found in a thick, burnt-orange pâté of roasted carrots mixed with minced walnuts, garlic and coriander. Fried eggplant, on the other hand, goes down like a firmer, less appealing fried green tomato, even with dollops of yogurt and a scattering of pomegranate seeds on the plate.
Two or more of you should share a plate of fries, listed under a category called “traditional schmaditional.” The potatoes are cut into thick fingers, fried so their centers remain fluffy and striped with two sauces: tangy sheep’s milk cheese and ketchup mixed with the housemade red ajika, coaxed from roasted peppers and more. Basil leaves pretend to lighten the load, a serious potato palooza.
The script’s head-scratcher is a po’ boy. Zoeller slips blue catfish between slices of crackling blond bread originating from the same simple dough used for khachapuri. Slathered with what resembles tartar sauce and hot with a mince of jalapeños and herbs, the combination adds up to a rousing, open-wide-and-let-’er-in sandwich. It also supports the Chesapeake ecosystem, where the Maryland-sourced catfish is invasive. A Georgian touch comes by way of the pickled sprouts from the jonjoli bush playing the role of capers in the sauce.
Lesson learned: If something looks out of place on a menu, give it a whirl. You might be (pleasantly) surprised.
This is food that travels well. But if weather allows and you’re up for a change of scenery from your own four walls, consider a meal on the patio. (The restaurant’s name comes from the Georgian word for an outdoor table; Supra is a nod to “feast.”) Tabla’s exterior bench seats are framed in greenery, and its brown umbrellas stretch to studio apartment size. Once you’re seated, a caddy with napkins and utensils, thoughtfully presented in paper sleeves, appears.
Diners facing the blue-and-white interior catch glimpses of slender chandeliers, outsize menus posted on walls, a bar around which only masked staff gather, and a mural by Mikheil Sulakauri, a Tbilisi street artist who goes by the name Lamb. His work depicts a lamb, a character found throughout Georgia’s capital, reclining on the White House and a sign that reads “Lamb 4 President.”
Jonathan Nelms views the scene as Georgia taking Washington by storm, conquering the States “in a friendly way,” the restaurateur writes via email, “one khachapuri at a time.”
At the very least, Tabla gets my vote of confidence.
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Tabla 3227 Georgia Ave. NW. 202-291-3227. tabladc.com. Open for takeout, dining in and outside 3 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday. Prices: Appetizers $7 to $17, khachapuri and grilled items $10 to $18. Delivery via DoorDash. Accessibility: No steps to front door; ADA-compliant restroom inside.