Qalaqi: Your Home from Home

On May 17, the much-awaited Georgian - European restaurant Qalaqi (‘City’) is to officially open. It has spent the past week working in “soft” mode, treating guests to a variety of delicious dishes designed by Michelin Star French Chef Nicolas Isnard and resident Chef, David Tavernier. The day before, the Michelin Star standard 35-seat French restaurant within Qalaqi, “Bronze by Nicolas Isnard,” will open to specially invited guests, welcomed by the two chefs and the Ambassador of France to Georgia, Pascual Meunier.

“Qalaqi is completely different from anything else in Georgia; the way of service, the style of cooking: everything is revolutionary, with a menu updated seasonally,” David told GEORGIA TODAY in an exclusive interview this February. “Bronze itself will have a menu, updated monthly, with five starters, main courses (fish and meat) and desserts, from which guests will be able to choose.

We went to catch up with David ahead of the opening and to meet the renowned Nicolas Isnard in person to find out his personal goal in opening Qalaqi in Tbilisi.

David Tavernier (L) and Nicolas Isnard in Qalaqi restaurant

“It is everything we imagined it to be when we planned. The décor is something truly special. And, of course, the kitchen is the same level as what you see when you walk in the door.”

He tells us his mission is for Qalaqi to quickly become recognized as “a good place to be in Tbilisi;” one which will give pleasure to guests.

“The first time I came, in 2017, I took time to explore the Georgian produce,” he informs us. “There’s both an Asian and a European element to the Georgian style. Georgia’s reasonable proximity to the Mediterranean Sea allows us to use Qalaqi to translate flavors from there and offer a genuine dining experience for European and Georgian tastes, as well as for those wanting to try something new.”

Qalaqi boasts fresh local products in all its dishes, differentiating it from many restaurants of its class.

“This is a challenge we set ourselves,” David says. “Using local products for Mediterranean dishes, we try to bring as few ingredients as possible from abroad, instead opting to fulfil one of the missions of this restaurant: to support the local economy, the local farmers, and to use Georgian produce.”

“Why import when what Georgia has is of such a high standard?” Nicolas asks, going on to explain his joy at catching the first scent and taste of Georgia-grown strawberries, “better than anything he had tasted before.”

“I can spend hours walking in the station market,” he confesses. “The cuisine, the atmosphere in the city, the hunger for novelty and for new flavors, is what inspired me to agree to start this project. It’s a huge investment,” he acknowledges.

David also confesses his love for Georgian cuisine and we ask what his experience is of local cooking and how it influences his decision-making when compiling the next menu for Nicolas’ approval.

“I spent five months’ in the kitchens of various Georgian restaurants in Tbilisi,” he tells us. “I watched, I learned, I ate…a lot. Then I brought that knowledge to Qalaqi and began to play with it.”

Nicolas and David speak every day, even when Nicolas is overseeing one of his other restaurants in France or Asia.

“David will design a dish and send me the description and a photo,” Nicolas explains. “I can’t taste it, but I know his style and from that we make a joint decision on each aspect of the menu. The day-to-day running of the Qalaqi kitchen, and training of the staff, is on David.”

“We aim to connect the French and Georgian spirit,” David says. “Our staff are trained and motivated. The waiters themselves are involved in the selection of the menu, tasting dishes; understanding them so they are informed and knowledgeable when serving guests.”

“Our focus is pleasure,” Nicolas tells us. “First, we aim to satisfy and inspire Georgian guests. But parallel to that, we are here to welcome tourists and foreign visitors. We need to adapt the flavors for Georgian guests, giving them local ingredients prepared using French techniques. We are French chefs in a Georgian restaurant in Georgia, providing local produce for local guests prepared with a French flair. We are the first in Georgia to do so,” he states.

“It is important that we remain open and adaptable to Georgian culture- taking the best from both French and Georgian traditions,” David adds.

We ask Nicolas to tell us what his expectations are when introducing a dining culture as high as ‘Bronze.’

“I knew from the outset that we couldn’t offer only fine-dining as it can be rather intimidating at first for those unfamiliar with the concept,” he answers. “We wanted to introduce the Qalaqi experience to the Tbilisi community step-by-step, and so Bronze is the last level of the Qalaqi restaurant that we are opening. Comfort is paramount. If a guest feels comfortable, they’ll come back again and again. That’s our aim: to make guests feel that Qalaqi is a home from home.”

David agrees. “We don’t want guests to walk in and see this sophisticated, incredible décor, and have an expectation that it will be unaffordable or too luxurious; that they should dress in a certain way or speak in whispers,” he says. “This restaurant is for everyone: couples, families, friends, business persons. The food is the standard you would expect from a Michelin Star kitchen, but we are careful to keep costs down as far as possible, by using local products, by buying an entire cow, for example, rather than its individual parts, and using it in its entirety… This way we can be sure the Qalaqi experience is open to as many people as possible. You won’t feel you’ve been ‘ripped off’ at the end of a meal with us,” he claims.

“Yes. We have high standards of food, service, wine, music…but in a way that is affordable. We want people to enjoy being here,” Nicolas affirms.

Nicolas will return to Qalaqi every two months to look over and make adjustments to the entire menu, keeping it fresh, French and of a guaranteed Michelin-star standard.

Try your ‘home from home’ at Qalaqi restaurant. 45B Kostava Street, Tbilisi. TEL 0322 55 10 30, open 11 AM – 11 PM.

More about Nicolas Isnard

The award-winning 41-year-old Nicolas Isnard owns a Michelin Star. His career began in 2000, as a Sous Chef in the Michelin Star restaurant Le Vieux Logis. In 2007, he was awarded the Under-32s Golden Gault & Millau's "Young Talent" for his work at the Michelin Star Château de Curzay, upgrading that to Gault & Millau's "Tomorrow's Best Chef" in 2009, just nine months after opening his own restaurant, L'auberge de la Charme. The following year, the restaurant was awarded the Golden Gault & Millau. Nikolas later opened the catering company Kook'In and in 2011 was awarded the title of four Chefs Hats, and a Golden Gault & Millau.

During his career, Nicolas Isnard has participated in a number of gastronomical events and master classes at the invitation of famous hotels around the world.

By Katie Ruth Davies

14 May 2018 20:02