Years ago Kosher restaurants meant “Delis”, with sandwiches of brisket of beef accompanied by a large bowl of Matzo Ball Soup. Immigrants from several areas of Europe and East Asia have, in more recent years, brought their own Kosher cooking. With the Soviet Union having broken up, new countries were formed, one of which is Georgia and a cuisine of its own.
Owner Ana Empremashvili (Give a holla for Women’s History Month) was bored with the flavor offerings of many kosher restaurants. She grew up in Moscow but later lived in Georgia. Why not bring the flavors of that area to the area of Forest Hills and Rego Park and call it “Marani”. Keep hiring your Executive Chef until you get the one you want…Araik Grigryan, who comes from Georgia as well.
Although “Marani” means wine cellar, the restaurant has that feeling and comfort of wood furniture, low lighting (Not too low so you can’t read the menu), wall fixtures that allow enough “Georgian” to come through, and some upbeat music. And, yes, there are some good wines.
Next, import the spices. Call it their own “curry” as curry is not a spice but a combination of (which they won’t reveal). Keep in mind that spices do not necessarily taste the same in each country. Now, we’re ready to sample the food.
Walnuts play a large part, not whole or chopped, but rather as a paste. It can get “milky” as if you had almond milk. Order the freshly made Georgian bread called Shotis Puri. I chose an appetizer of three salads. Sliced fried eggplant rolled up in walnut paste and sprinkled with pomegranate seeds…another Georgian staple. A baby beet salad had a slight crunch from the beets, rather than the walnuts. Then there was this green bean salad that with a few more additions could have passed for a mock chopped liver. Loved all three. Washed my food down with a pear flavored Georgian “lemonade” soda. Really refreshing!
Soup time! I ordered the Harcho and what turned out to be another OMG. It is a tomato and pepper based soup made with “rice, lamb, and love” as well as the Georgian spices. Followed with an appetizer, Dressed Herring: Layered with pickled herring, potato salad, carrots, beets and hardboiled egg (and herbs).
Most places that have stuffed grape leaves, give you no more than just rice. There is very little rice as their grape leaves are stuffed with beef and lamb. Had to sample a few more apps before the main course. Pelmeni is common to Russian cuisine, although I suspect that the herbs used in this one is different. Their version is like having fried kreplach filled with beef and topped with a tomato sauce and onions. Totally curious about the Khinkali, described as “Georgian style dumplings with beef, lamb and herbs” that turns out to be their version of Chinese soup dumplings…not as “soupy” and thick dumpling but still delicious!
Looking over the entrees, one stood out as being “different”. As it turned out Ana recommended it! Chakapuli: braised lamb bones with enough meat to satisfy. It contains tarragon, herbs, tkemali – a spicy Georgian tomato sauce and “magic”. What the difference between “love” and “magic” is doesn’t matter…there is an obvious amount of both in all of the cooking.
I did save a little room for dessert….a non-dairy version of a Napoleon. Very flakey (like me) and a creamy textured filling.
This does not conclude my review of the restaurant as this place is the only restaurant that has two Glatt Kosher restaurants one of which is downstairs (You have to enter the main restaurant) where you can have dairy! It’s a small café that specializes in “Megruli”, a Georgian version of pizza.
They are not hanging around and you don’t get to order a slice. I watched the chef (another female), as she pounded out a circle of dough and fill the middle with Sulguni cheese, kind of like a combo of mozzarella and feta. Folded in, she then flattened it and covered with an egg wash. Into the oven for what was only about ten minutes. Washed atop with butter and placed in a to-go pizza box. I took one home. Think of it as a large round thin crusted calzone as if you were ordering a “white pie”. This Khachapuri Megruli is only one of the offerings.
Now, here’s the thing. You can go downstairs with some friends and start off with any of their dairy products then go upstairs and dine but you can’t bring it with you. If you’re Kosher, you can’t do it the other way.
Marani is located at 97-26 63rd Drive. 718-569-0600. www.maraninyc.com