Badri, the Georgian baker of Neptune Avenue, is a slave to his oven. Before he could open Georgian Bread, he had to construct a toné, the Georgian version of the tandoor. This beehive-shaped oven sits in the middle of his storefront bakery bellowing heat during the hottest summer days. Six days a week, he has to wake up at 4:00am to get to his bakery by five and light the oven. Then he ties a cloth around his head and begins to work. With just one assistant, he spends the next 12 hours mixing dough, baking bread, making Georgian salads, and tending customers. Everything he makes is delicious.
The first bread Badri makes is shoti, the Georgian table staple that can only be baked in a toné. It's made from just flour, water, yeast, and salt. Badri takes lumps of dough, grasps them at two ends, and stretches them across a kind of curved paddle covered in cloth. He then sticks the paddle into the oven and slaps the dough against the wall. In less than 10 minutes, they're done. The shoti come out looking like ciabattas with stretch marks, and handy grips at each end. Fresh, they're delicious, with crispy edges, a moist white center, and great aroma. You can either gobble them plain or smear them with Badri's excellent homemade salads.
A little later in the morning, it's time for Badri to cook the khachapuri. This is the Georgian version of pizza, a disk of thin dough stuffed with cheese. Badri bakes it in a convection oven at the back of the store. According to Darra Goldstein's excellent cookbook, The Georgian Feast, khachapuri is a popular street food, produced by bakeries in every Georgian city and town. In Badri's version, the bread is just the envelope; the cheese is the main event. His filling is made by blending three Georgian cheeses with butter for that extra cholesterol kick. You bite into it and the warm, mildly pungent cheese oozes down your throat—it doesn't take much to fill you up. If you're lucky, you can also try Badri's bean khachapuri, filled with mashed kidney beans seasoned with onions and spices.
In the refrigerated case at the front of his store, Badri sells four Georgian salads--spinach, eggplant, kidney bean, and green bean--that you can scoop up with your shoti. Each is made with the typical Georgian seasoning mix of garlic, onion, coriander, ground walnuts, and spices in various combinations. For me, the spinach and the eggplant are the best, rich yet bright with breathy garlic flavor.
Below the salads is a shelf of Georgian-style cheeses, some imported and others American-made. Some are akin to mozzarella and feta, but I was most fascinated with the Georgian "guda," which was faintly greenish and pockmarked with bubbles. To the right are shelves of Georgian marinades, spice blends, jams, and mineral waters, all terrain for future exploration.
Badri sells his breads and salads to Brooklyn's small Georgian community and also does wholesale business with the handful of local Georgian restaurants, including the excellent Pirsomani on Avenue U.
Badri is surviving, but that's all. You can see the toll that the baker's life taking on his face. After closing his shop, he goes home and collapses, only to have to wake up at 4:00am the next morning and start again. Right now, he's not sure how long he can keep it up; maybe seven or eight more months and then he'll stop. If he isn't there, who will keep the toné fires burning?
265 Neptune Avenue, Brooklyn NY 11235 (map)