The Call of Khachapuri at Oda House, Georgian Food in Alphabet City
76 Avenue B, New York, NY 10009 (at 5th; map); 212-353-3838; odahouse.com
Service: Friendlier than your average eastern European spot, if not the most vocal
Setting: Part window-lit cafe, part Georgian social club
Must-Haves: Adjaruli khachapuri, Chakapuli, Walnut cake
Cost: Appetizers $9 to $13, Mains $14 to $20
Compare To: Pirosmani, Veselka
Hours: 11 a.m. to 12 a.m.
Recommendations: Good for the neighborhood, but also the borough. Some of the only Georgian food you'll find in New York north of Midwood.
For a couple brief hours there was a reprieve from the heat, some rain and a cool breeze, and a hunger for comfort food called out. So I returned to Oda House.
There I nibbled on eggplant with walnut sauce and juicy beef dumplings before tucking into the house specialty: a canoe of fluffy, burnished bread flooded with gooey, salty cheese and a par-cooked egg to stir into it all. Then came lamb stewed with tarragon and game hen with white wine. Yes, Oda House is an eastern European restaurant with a focus on comfort food. But you won't find cabbage or sour cream on the menu.
The cuisine here is Georgian—Republic Of, that is—a new one for many, even as it gains greater recognition. That's because the Georgian people are a distinct ethnicity in Europe, with their own language, culture, and food; to find Georgian restaurants in New York, you have to visit south Brooklyn neighborhoods like Midwood, Sheepshead Bay, and Brighton Beach.
But here's Oda House, right in Alphabet City. It's been called the only Georgian restaurant in Manhattan, which is not strictly true, but it's certainly the most welcoming. The young restaurant has already become something of a hub for younger Georgians who don't live in south Brooklyn, and it serves some damned fine cheese bread.
The Georgians call it khachapuri, the calorically efficient union of bread and dairy that you'll find on every restaurant menu and in most Georgian homes; at Oda House it comes seven ways, each variation hailing from its own region of the country. The most fun is Adjaruli ($12), boat-shaped and filled to bursting with mozzarella for gooeyness and feta for tang. Just before the bread hits your table they add a raw egg, which you stir into the cheese and devour before the thing has a chance to set. The bread itself is especially nice, browned with an egg wash and flavorful beyond its cheesy payload.
Oda House also sells breads made with beans and corn such as the Chvishtari ($8), a more subtly cheesy corn cake served with walnut sauce. It's worth an order for that walnut sauce alone, which you should keep close as more courses arrive, or save for using at home. The thin pureée of walnuts, water, and spices is rich but clean, and like good butter or olive oil, it goes with pretty much everything. Fortunately you can have it in many forms at Oda House.
Other starters don't fare quite as well. A dish of too-boiled catfish ($13) disappoints its bright herb, garlic, and vinegar sauce, and Khinkali ($7), beef and pork dumplings analogous to Chinese soup dumplings, are blandly seasoned (albeit impressively juicy). The cold vegetable spreads that make up the Pkhali Trio ($12) go well with beer, the eggplant with walnuts in particular, but the other two are less memorable.
The restaurant's food doesn't always measure up to the best of its south Brooklyn compatriots. But there are plenty of winning touches, like an attractively modern but comfortable dining room that's beautifully lit come sunset. The wine list (Georgian and Western) has some pleasant surprises that buck the common sweet wines that dominate other Georgian spots, like an electric, almost minty Tsinandali ($9 glass, $32 bottle) from the Teliani Valley—its refreshing dryness pairs especially well with the khachapuri. And the superlatively friendly service makes a non-Georgian feel just as comfortable as an expat at the next table.
If you want to feel like one of them, try the Chakapuli ($19), with elements familiar (lamb stewed with mint and wine) and not (the dominant herb is tarragon, the wine is white). The lamb in the soup is gorgeously tender and the broth is infused with a complex anise sweetness. Herbs also play a strong role in a dish of roasted game hen ($16) with thyme and garlic, though the poultry's juices threaten to soften its crackly skin. Proteins tend to go underseasoned at Oda House, and the vegetarian Lobio ($14), a ceramic pot of pinto beans crowned with cornbread, is no exception. In general, I'd advise sticking to dishes strongly flavored by herbs and walnuts, and, of course, ordering plenty of khachapuri.
Walnuts show up again at dessert in a walnut cake ($9) well worth ordering; its delicate, not too sweet crumb is moistened by a frosting of puréed walnuts and condensed milk. Oda House offers outdoor seating, and come autumn weather, the cake will be just the thing to take outside with a cup of coffee.
The bathroom is worth mentioning too, specifically the wall outside that's illustrated with notes from customers in permanent marker. Most are in Georgian, a beautiful script that swirls and loops through its many consonants, but one in English caught me eye, a note that illuminated the value of this imperfect but charming restaurant for its own community and beyond: "From one Georgian to another," it said, "thank you!"