Until 10 at night, the restaurant seems like a very staid, tranquil place. Through the large window – which at first glance looks like a mirror – the lights of Western Galilee communities are visible. Wine glasses sparkle in the warm lighting; and the couples, families and groups of friends at the tables are all enjoying a pleasant meal and quiet conversation.
At 10, the hostess clears her throat and the place falls silent. “I’m Lea and that’s Bella,” she says, pointing to a dark-haired woman who is peeking out of the kitchen’s service window. “And we started this restaurant to be able to host people just like we host friends and family at home. In Georgia the meal lasts for many hours, sometimes even days, not like in Israel, where we’ve gotten used to just eating and running. The tamada, head of the table and the first to raise a toast, gets to choose the topic of conversation and the blessings for which toast after toast is raised throughout the meal. Every night at the restaurant, I select someone to be the tamada. In Georgia, this custom is reserved for a man, but here we’re liberal.”
Tonight’s tamada, a woman guest chosen at random who was first given a quick, confidential briefing outside the restaurant, dons the woolly shepherd’s hat and picks up a full horn of wine. The initial awkwardness soon gives way to an enthusiastic speech about world and inner peace that would make any aspiring beauty queen proud. When she finishes, the symbols of authority are passed to one of the guests at another table. Little by little, as the wine is drunk, the toasts get funnier and funnier, and the barriers fall away. And when the rhythmic Georgian music begins to play, even those who declined to take up the horn of wine (“my Polish genes will not allow me to speak in public”) become freewheeling dancers joyfully bopping between the tables.
Lea oversees and orchestrates all of this with perfect ease and a constant mischievous smile. “In the beginning, when people asked us what our vision was for the place, I said, ‘a Wild West-style Georgian bordello’,” she confides. “We were asked what we wanted to do when we retired, and we said we wanted to be those old ladies who sit at the bar with young men and can’t remember what they’re drinking,” Bella adds slyly.
Such devoted sisters
Lea Ocheri and Bella Chanan were born in different cities in Georgia and came to Israel with their families in the 1970s. Ocheri made her life in Nahariya, and Chanan in Tel Aviv. The pair first met about a decade ago through a mutual friend, at an evening for Georgian women. “It was a totally wild party,” says Lea. “Precisely because in theireveryday lives, Georgian women have to maintain their reserve, when they’re alone without any men around, they totally let loose.”
The two women, who soon became fast friends, opened their authentic Georgian restaurant on Kibbutz Shomrat two years ago. “My mother was always having people over for coffee and it would end up being at least a hundred people,” says Limor (Ocheri) Ben-Haim, Lea’s daughter, who also works in the family business. “She really loves people and loves to be a hostess. Even during my rebellious youth, when I was into punk and all that, she would invite people with a Mohawk who she found on the floor of her bathroom to stay for breakfast – and it would go on for days. They were crazy about her.”
Lea is in charge of the hosting, and Bella oversees the kitchen. They named their restaurant Shota after the 12th-century Georgian poet Shota Rustaveli. A copy of his most famous poem is prominently displayed, and the choice of his name is also a kind of inside joke by the two Georgian women, both divorced mothers of two, who opened a business on their own. “At first, Georgian men would come in and ask for the master of the house, for Mr. Shota. ‘He’s just gone out, he’ll be right back,’ we’d promise them,” says Lea.
The restaurant is housed in a building that was once the kibbutz dairy and dates from the 1930s; the walls are painted in warm, sensual colors – The world outside may be getting dreary, but the universe created by these Georgian women remains incredibly colorful. The tables are set with beautiful dishes from the homeland that were passed down from generation to generation, and in dowries from mother to daughter. “If only we’d held on to all the dishes we got. When we were younger we didn’t want all those old things,” says Bella. “We wanted to be Israelis and we were embarrassed when our grandmothers would hang out the traditional sausages or the churchkhela sweets to dry. But that’s also the essence of Georgian-ness – eating and drinking and not leaving anything for an inheritance.”
From its first day, with no PR or advertising, word of the restaurant got around in the area thanks to Lea’s great gift for hospitality and Bella’s marvelous food, which restored our faith in Georgian cuisine. Up to now, a brief visit to Georgia as well as meals at other Georgian restaurants in Israel hadn’t convinced us of this cuisine’s great virtues. But two meals from Bella’s kitchen made us yearn for much more.
We start with lavash, a wonderful flatbread, with tkemali, a tangy green plum sauce, and a tomato and pepper spread. We continue with a meze of appetizers, like goat-cheese stuffed grape leaves in olive oil, or badrijani – fried eggplant halves topped with, among other things, that holy Georgian trinity of cilantro, walnuts and pomegranate, and all accompanied by shots of alcohol (leave it to the Georgians to tempt one to drink).
Then it’s time for Bella’s marvelous doughy creations: khachapuri, bread stuffed with spinach and cheeses; chiburak – fried, meat-filled dumplings (which Bella magically managed to make light as air, despite the frying); and the traditional khinkali dumplings. Other tempting offerings include a dish of chicken legs cooked with tamarind and onion; a wonderful beef stew with quince; or a divine wintry dish of red lentils with traditional seasonings. This is a restaurant that is worth a special trip in itself, not just a stop at if you happen to be in the area.
There is some thought of opening another branch in Tel Aviv – the next generation from both families has been pressing the idea – but no one is in a big rush to do so. “It would be hard to copy the soul of Shota somewhere else, and in Tel Aviv, everything tends to turn sleazy,” says Limor, with her mother’s sly smile.