photo credit: Noah Devereaux
You might not know it, but you want some khachapuri penovani right now. We’d bet the lives of our houseplants on it - but if you’re skeptical, just go to Chama Mama in Chelsea. This place has some of the best Georgian food in Manhattan, and it’s somewhere you should keep in mind for any group dinner that calls for an excessive amount of melted cheese.
The menu at Chama Mama is double-sided, and the entire front is dedicated to the cheese-filled Georgian bread known as khachapuri. The most popular kind is the khachapuri adjaruli, which you might recognize as the photogenic bread boat that looks like a melted cheese jacuzzi. It comes topped with an egg yolk and a pad of butter, and it’s objectively delicious - but after the first few bites, your body will catch on to the fact that you’re eating pure cheese mixed with butterfat and an egg yellow. That’s why we prefer the simpler khachapuris, like the round imeruli and the square, flaky khachapuri penovani (both of which come stuffed with cheese). Get at least one of these breads, and add an order of the baseball-sized dumplings known as khinkali.
Khinkali and khachapuri are non-optional orders here, but after that, you’ll have to make some decisions. For an entrée, you could always go with the pork skewers or the beef-and-lamb kebabs wrapped in flatbread - but if you want something a little more interesting and flavorful, go with one of the soups or stews. For something thick and nutty, try the megruli karsho, a stew made with crushed walnuts that’s sort of like a bowl of savory nut butter filled with chunks of beef you can cut with your spoon. The chakapuli, a mushroom soup with wilted greens, is similarly excellent, especially the lamb version that’s salty and sour, with equal parts meat and broth.
An ideal scenario involves a bunch of people sharing all of these things, and, fortunately, there’s plenty of room here. There’s a big space up front with a bar and a view of the kitchen, and there’s another room in the back with around 10 tables, including one that’s large enough to fit up to 12, on the off chance you know that many people who like eating dinner together. With its shiny hardwood floors and minimalist black-and-white color scheme, the space kind of looks like the flagship dining operation of Crate & Barrel - which is to say it’s generically nice and kind of comforting.
But you don’t come here for the shiny hardwood floors. You come here for the kind of Georgian food that’ll have you mumbling words like “chakapuli” and “imeruli” while you walk off a heavy meal. Bring a group, and make sure these people like meat, cheese, and, preferably, khachapuri penovani.
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Once you see someone eating this, you’ll feel a strong desire to order it yourself. And if you do, you and khachapuri will be very happy together. Just know that you’ll probably need help finishing it, and you might swear off cheese for at least several hours.
If the Khachapuri Adjaruli is a Ferrari (excessive and impractical), then the Penovani is a nice BMW. This flaky pastry filled with stretchy cheese is still pretty luxurious, but it’s just a little more manageable and better suited for your day-to-day existence.
Similar to the penovani - just a little less flaky and with a different kind of cheese - think of this as the default khachapuri at Chama Mama. It isn’t the fanciest, but it’s absolutely worth ordering.
Khinkali are fist-sized Georgian dumplings. The correct way to eat one is to pick it up, take a bite, suck out the broth, then go to town on the rest of the dumpling (excluding the knob at the top, which you leave on your plate). Go for the beef-and-pork variety, and get at least one order for every two people at your table.
This stew is the consistency of peanut butter and the color of some new khakis at The Gap. It’s rich and creamy, and it’s one of our favorite things here.
Chakapuli With Braised Lamb
You can get this chakapuli vegetarian, but we prefer it with lamb. The broth is sour, salty, and intensely lamby, and it comes with a huge portion of meat.
You’ll see a “Butcher’s Choice” section on the menu, and the options change daily - but you’ll typically find some kebabs, lamb chops, and pork skewers. You won’t go wrong with pretty much anything in this section, especially the kebabs.
Lamb Stuffed Grape Leaves
For the most part, these are some very solid stuffed grape leaves - although two things set them apart. First off, the lamb inside is excellent. There’s also a little bit of cinnamon on top, which works extremely well with both lamb and grape leaves. Just know that you only get three per order, and an order is $13.