Ekala is a prickly climber akin to North American greenbrier, often dismissed as a troublemaking weed. In the Imereti region of Georgia, its crisp young shoots are gathered in spring, before their thorns sharpen, when they’re as skinny and fragile as first asparagus, and pickled to last.
It rarely makes its way to New York, not even to the Georgian restaurants of southern Brooklyn, where thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet republic have settled in the past 30 years.
Yet at Chama Mama, which opened in March in a lofty space in Chelsea, ekala appears without fanfare. It simply takes its rightful place at the table, roughly chopped with a paste of walnuts and garlic: earthy and delicate.
Tamara Chubinidze, who runs Chama Mama, was born in Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital, and moved to New York in 1996 as a teenager. Her father arrived earlier, after her mother’s death and the collapse of the Soviet Union. He spoke no English; to survive, he drove a taxi and sold used books, “all these things that immigrants do,” Ms. Chubinidze said.
Now he owns an import company that supplies Chama Mama with ekala, as well as gandzili — cousin to ramps, garlicky and sweet, growing wild in the oldest, dampest woods — and jonjoli, flower buds that, when brined, attain the juiciness of capers. Both are presented here in bright salads, dressed with little more than sunflower oil from Kakheti, Georgia’s wine country.
(In Georgian, “chama” is “to eat,” and “mama,” counterintuitively for an English speaker, is “father.” So the restaurant’s name translates literally as “eat your father” — a bit of nonsense that makes Ms. Chubinidze laugh.)
The chef, Nino Chiokadze, honors the rustic simplicity of Georgian cooking. At other Georgian restaurants, thin cuts of eggplant are often smeared with walnut paste and rolled into cigarillos, for a pretty appetizer. But in the countryside, Ms. Chubinidze said, “grandmas didn’t care about presentation”: They mashed the eggplant right into the walnut paste to intensify the flavors, and Ms. Chiokadze does the same.
Vegetables are plentiful among the small plates. But the main courses give precedence to meat, like ojaxuri, a heap of pork, potatoes and onions, browned and seething. Beef short ribs turn creamy in megruli kharcho, long simmered with walnuts, kviteli kvavili (yellow marigold, the Georgian saffron) and utskho suneli, blue fenugreek, warmer and gentler in bitterness than the more common variety.
For shkmeruli, Cornish game hen is fried until the skin crisps, then traditionally submerged in milk heavy with garlic. Because American milk has less body, Ms. Chiokadze uses heavy cream to give the dish the necessary lushness.
Majestic khinkali, mammoth dumplings, are best held by the topknot and nibbled carefully, so the broth — pent up within — spills into your mouth. Georgian city-dwellers discard the thick, doughy knots, “but if you go up to the mountains, they look at you,” Ms. Chubinidze said. “So spoiled, to only eat the bottom part.”
If Georgian food is becoming better known in America, credit goes largely to its most brazenly rich offering, adjaruli khachapuri, an imposing flatbread that narrows at the ends and bulges in the middle to reveal a roil of molten cheese topped by a trembling yolk. At Chama Mama, this is stirred tableside into a voluptuous mess, after the server asks how much butter you’d like to add. Half a slab, or all? (In Georgia, Ms. Chubinidze said, “nobody asks.”)
Of course this is good. But even better is imeruli khachapuri, a superlatively flaky round hiding its cache of cheese. Here, the dough is treated almost like puff pastry, pressed with shredded cold butter that melts only once it hits the oven — an imposing clay tone (pronounced “taw-nay”) that stands in the kitchen, framed by a glass window, a silent volcano.
Any bread or dish benefits from a daub of adjika, chiles pulverized with garlic and Svaneti salt, a blend primed with utskho suneli and coriander. Back home, Ms. Chubinidze said, adjika is so hot, “it makes you cry when you eat it.” The version here is kinder, but still thrilling.
For dessert, there is another rarity, at least for Georgians, who must wait all year for it: gozinaki, a brittle of caramelized walnuts and honey made only for New Year’s and Christmas (Jan. 7 in the Georgian Orthodox calendar).