South Brooklyn is living through a Georgian moment. New Georgian restaurants are popping up; Brighton Beach markets have started to stock condiments and electric green tarragon soda imported from the Caucasus; and, most importantly, the borough is now home to at least a half dozen Georgian bakeries.
You can divide Georgian bread into two categories: with cheese and without. The "with cheese" category is dominated by the khachapuris, a group of round and flattish breads usually stuffed with white Georgian cheese. Some are further enriched with whole bars of butter and fresh-cracked eggs.
But such breads, though excellent, are heavy, and I don't have the stomach to digest great gobs of melted dairy products. If you feel the same way, consider Georgian "without cheese" breads, particularly the skinny and delicious shoti loaves that I first tasted at Georgian Bread, made by the now retired master baker Badri.
Shoti is a table bread, made for dipping in stews and spreading with the delicious Georgian appetizers, the functional Georgian equivalent of a baguette. Its ingredients are just flour, water, yeast, and salt—the devil is in the details, in getting just right the balance of ingredients and fermentation. Just before baking, the baker spreads a ball of dough into the distinctive shoti shape on a cloth-covered paddle and then uses it to slap the dough onto the wall of a toné oven, the Georgian version of a tandoor. After seven or eight minutes, the baker extracts the loaves from the toné using a long-handled spatula and a hook.
Cookbook writer Darra Goldstein, author of The Georgian Feast, told me that the ideal shoti should have "the right balance of thin and crispy crust on the two pointed ends, while the central part of the loaf should be thick with a fairly soft crumb. It should be chewy, but not dense, and never fluffy." For me, Badri reached that ideal. Recently, I decided to trek through South Brooklyn collecting loaves to see if I could identify a new contender for the shoti crown. Each of the shoti below cost $2.50.
Like a baguette, a shoti loaf has a pretty short shelf life, so it's best to buy it hot from the oven. My favorite shoti was the one from Toné, the new bakery that has taken over Badri's Neptune Avenue oven and opened a Georgian restaurant next door. Its loaves come out of the oven with crisp edges, a distinct sinew to the crumb, and good flavor. My only criticism is that they're a little too dense—you need some holes to sop up Georgian stews.
Not all Georgian bakeries have a toné. (If the bottom of the shoti is lighter than the top, it's a pretty sure sign that it was baked in a regular oven.) Both Apani and Taste of Georgia produce shotis with a good flavor and texture; they just need more heat in order to the crisp up the edges. However, Apani also makes excellent versions of the Georgian cold appetizers, particularly the cold eggplant rolls stuffed with walnut paste. Finally, there are now three Georgian bakeries named Brick Oven Bread. I'm not sure if they're related, but their shotis are similar: long, pale, fluffy, and a bit over-salted.
To sum up, the ideal shoti remains elusive, but there are still ample reasons to visit Brooklyn's Georgian bakeries.