If you have any roots in Georgia — not the Southern state but the Eurasian country straddling the Caucasus Mountain ranges along the Black Sea — chances are good you already know Apani, the tiny two-year-old takeout shop and bakery in Sheepshead Bay.
That may be because the city’s Georgian population is both small and close-knit, as co-owner Ivane Shaishmelashvili points out — “we end up finding each other,” he says. More likely it is due to the skills of Nina Gendzekhadze, his business partner and Apani’s secret weapon.
Gendzekhadze is Apani’s head cook, a small woman who looks as though she could fit into the sacks of the King Arthur flour she uses to bake rounds of soft, buttery khachapuri, the country’s famous cheese-stuffed breads. Her size is handy because Apani, a few steps from the Sheepshead Bay subway station, is not very large. (In an earlier life, it was a hero shop run by the owners of Randazzo’s Clam Bar.)
Apani’s narrow kitchen is home to a small bread oven, a four-burner stove and two handmade wooden counters where Gendzekhadze and a helper might roll badrijani nigvzit, thin silky slices of roasted eggplant wrapped around a delicate spiced walnut paste; or hand-form savory pies stuffed with shredded cabbage, ground beef and tubby white rice or salt-and-pepper-seasoned potatoes.
In the middle of the kitchen is an old Hobart standing mixer, whose massive hook kneads the doughs not just for those pies, but Apani’s belt-shaped shoti bread, similar to French bread in flavor, and the many kinds of khachapuri made several times each day.
The basic model at Apani is the imeruli, a thin disc of double-layered yeast dough filled with a mixture of three cow’s milk cheeses, which Gendzekhadze blends by hand to re-create the flavor of the original back home. (She and Shaishmelashvili hope to one day have room make their own, or find a partner to do so.) The inch-tall rounds are brushed with butter once they come out of the oven, cut into wedges and are best eaten on the spot.
There is also the megruli, shaped into a crescent with frilly edges and filled with more cheese and quartered hard-boiled eggs; the lobiani, a fat wheel named after the red beans that go into its filling; an occasional kubdani, filled with meat; and the smaller, square penovani, which is made from flaky pastry dough folded over its cheesy center like a handkerchief. (At Apani there is even a version wrapped around a wooden skewer, Gendzekhadze’s gift to the commuters passing by en route to the B express train.)
As back home in Georgia, Apani’s most beloved style of khachapuri — made only to order, as it must be eaten directly from the oven, says Shaishmelashvili — is acharuli: a puffy dough canoe whose center is filled with cheese, a freshly cracked egg and paper-thin slices of very good butter. Georgians swirl together the cheese and butter and eggs, then tear off little pieces of the crust and dip them in.
It is rich with dairy deliciousness, decadent despite its humble looks.
“You have to be Georgian to eat the whole thing,” Gendzekhadze warns, noting that it is originally from Imereti, the western region of Georgia where she grew up. (Shaishmelashvili, on the other hand, hails from the capital city of Tbilisi.)
Beyond the breads, Gendzekhadze’s menu often changes with the seasons. In winter you must have the spiced rice and beef soup called kharcho, the Georgian stuffed cabbages called dolma, and chakapuli, lamb stew typically made with tarragon and a sour plum sauce called tkemali.
There is almost always pkhali, a chopped, cooked spinach dish enriched with a nearly equal amount of crushed walnuts. Walnuts also appear in the creamy sauce of a classic Georgian chicken dish called sacivi.
If you order in advance, Gendzekhadze will pleat the purselike soup dumplings called khinkali. (Stuffed with meat and made to order for $1 apiece, explains Shaishmelashvili, they are similar to the pelmeni made in Russia, their neighbor to the north. Except with pelmeni, he says, “there is no juicy inside.”)
Small trays hold tomato-red Georgian ratatouille, bright pink beets tossed with garlic and mayonnaise; and crispy-skinned Cornish hens dusted, if you like, with a golden spice paste called kviteli qvavili, or “yellow flower,” which Gendzekhadze’s mother sends in the mail. (It smells like fennel, cumin and cinnamon, and is made of components for which Gendzekhadze doesn’t know the American names.)
Much of the rest of the menu is flavored with khmeli suneli, a dusty green Georgian spice blend that can include ground coriander, marigold petals and blue fenugreek.
If the Georgian spice cabinet surprises you — a stew might contain saffron, mint, coriander, tarragon, dill, ginger, red and black pepper, for example — consider that the country sits in the middle of western Asia and Eastern Europe, and is bounded not just by Russia, but Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan.
“The Silk Road came through,” explains Shaishmelashvili. “Some things got left behind.”
Indeed if Gendzekhadze is the cook, Shaishmelashvili serves as frontman, intent on teaching others about his country’s cooking. Maybe 30 to 40 percent of his customers are Georgian, he estimates, while another 40 percent are of Russian or Ukrainian descent. In fact some Georgian dishes — kharcho, for example — are today considered part of the Russian culinary canon, because so many Georgians immigrated to the former Soviet Union during the 20th century.
The rest of Apani’s customers are a mixed lot, just like Brooklyn: American, West Indian, Mexican, Chinese, many lured in by the considerable appeal of those buttery, cheese-filled rounds in the glass case by the front door.
“Everybody,” says Shaishmelashvili, “loves khachapuri.”
See our photo-illustrated guide to khachapuri here.
Photo credit: Clay Williams