Georgian-Oriental: The Perfect Marriage of Cuisine and Style
Nana and Nasser’s new Cafe Ansari delivers the fine art of exotic travel of the tongue, with ambiance and amiability
A barrage of photos from a friend’s iPhone had been interrupting me the entire day. "Where on earth are you?" I wrote. "In a car," he answered. Out the car window, the countryside was gorgeous. I couldn’t figure it out. Ireland? Chile? Suddenly he sent his flight details: Berlin-Tbilisi.
Ah! Georgia. I’d never been there, but the photos showed a land of ancient stone churches and deep-green mountain landscapes. Part of the Caucasus, it’s at the crossroads of Europe and Asia. The people there speak a language that has no relatives; the script looks less like letters and more like the flowering tendrils of grapevines.
Nana Ansari is from Georgia. In 1991 the artist fled to Austria with her two children to escape the bloody civil war that had broken out after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Dreaming of home, in 2004 she wrote one of the first specialty cookbooks about Georgian cuisine (Die georgische Tafel, still available from Vienna’s own Mandelbaum Verlag). She opened her first restaurant a year later, Madiani at the 2nd District’s Karmelitermarkt. It was part of a food/lifestyle revolution that was decisive in the market’s revitalisation.
This summer, Nana and her husband Nasser opened Cafe Ansari. At the quiet end of the Praterstraße, after the "highway" veers off toward the canal, the café is nestled into a magical protected corner that was just waiting for a couple of good restaurants to bring it alive (See "Japanese Food for Little Gluttons: Mochi" in TVR June, 2012). The atmosphere is special: a grove of old trees, a cobblestoned sidewalk wide enough for four rows of tables – sitting outside was still possible in late September – and at night, glowing old-fashioned street lamps with the softness of gas light.
The Cafe Ansari menu is half-Georgian and half-"Oriental", says owner Nasser, who is half-Austrian and half-Lebanese. Clearly, we are going to get some fusion food here, but a different sort than we usually experience.
The true nature of a cook is tasted in the first course. At Ansari, the Vorspeisen Variation for two (€24), comes on a three-tiered étagère and is the best way to try the whole first half of the menu. It is immediately clear that the people in the kitchen are honest and friendly, under the influence of the warm Ansari couple.
What luscious samples! Each dish was exciting in a new way. From fluffy humus to an eggplant roulade with creamy walnut and coriander paste, beets with perfectly roasted pine nuts, marinated octopus salad, and sour-spicy roast beef. At the edge of many bites was the sweet-tart explosion of a pomegranate seed, sparkling in the mouth. And a curious flavour illusion: The carrots stuffed with pounded walnuts, saffron and onions tasted just like blueberries. Memories flooded the senses of picking them as a child on the Schneeberg, the mountain in Vienna’s backyard.
The first impression is that everything is sincere and authentic, combined with a hint of fantasy and wit. Next to the tap water dispenser in the middle of the room, stylish with its own spot light, is a lamp shade made out of a paper bag. The restrooms are marked with "K" and "Q", causing a bit of distress for every first-timer. "In Georgian, kazi means man and qali woman," says Nana with a trace of a smile, "or king and queen, if you prefer."
The second impression is that small details are important. Black tea is served in real British bone china, the Moroccan mint tea in small silver pots from Casablanca. The house wine has been chosen with care: The white is a delicious organic Grüner Veltliner from the Kamptal, the fruity red is from Tbilisi. The music is unobtrusive jazz, loud enough to hear, quiet enough to talk.
The grey-green space is large, but the minimalistic lighting gives the illusion of privacy, even at the long communal tables. The design of the calm and refreshing interior is by Ansari’s architect friend Gregor Eichinger, who tuned right in to Nana’s artistic sensibility.
To finish an evening, try a table samovar for two (€15). In the best tradition of the old (Soviet) world, it is for those who like to linger. And for a last taste surprise, try the crème brûlée (€6.20), served in two small dishes. After a nice "crack" when the crust is first hit with a spoon, you discover that one is flavoured with lemon grass and the other with cardamom.
Legend has it that when God was handing out land to the peoples of the earth, the Georgians, having partied all night, didn’t wake up in time. When they finally got there, all the land was gone. So God decided to give them his own garden.
And a garden always inspires the cook.
2., Praterstraße 15
(01) 276 5102