Sebastopol’s Piala Restaurant and Wine Bar offers a taste of Georgia
Sebastopol’s short stretch of Healdsburg Avenue between North Main Street and Murphy Avenue has turned into quite the interesting culinary spot as of late. There’s the newish Khom Loi Thai regional Asian cuisine restaurant, the newish Flavor Bistro with its eclectic global menu, and now, the entirely new Piala Restaurant and Wine Bar serving Georgian cuisine.
That’s Georgia as in the Eastern European republic, not America’s Southeastern state. It’s not what you would expect to find in this quiet, largely rural Wine Country town. But apparently, from how busy I’ve seen it, it’s welcomed by the locals. And as a local myself, I’m delighted it’s here.
The place is easy to miss. It’s set back in a strip mall in the former Suhko Thai space. Inside though, it’s an enchanting retreat, with elaborate carpets hanging on the walls and a floor of intricate tile.
On a recent visit, it took forever to get attention as I waited ... and waited ... for anyone to say hello. I finally just claimed a table at one of the handful of spots arranged near a quite long communal table next to a cozy bar.
Yet it didn’t really bother me, because one of the pleasures of dining in this small space is eavesdropping. Sit as close to the bar as you can to horn in on co-owner Jeff Berlin’s conversations with fans coming in for dishes influenced by Georgia’s proximity to Russia, Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan.
You’ll also find fans of the Georgian wines poured here, which is why I waited so long for anyone to notice me. A gentleman was gushing to Berlin about his fascination with the wines, made in the oldest wine-producing region in the world. He owned a wine bar in another state, he said, and had flown in to peruse the offerings here.
Selections in the tiny storefront shop beckon with exotic quaffs like a 2019 Lapati Chinuri Petillant Naturel sparkling from Kartli ($30 bottle), a 2019 Artanuli Saperavi red from Kakheti ($24) and lots of amber wines (a new-to-me term for orange wines, where white wines are given contact with the grape skins to produce color ranging from dark yellow to blood orange).
How happy I was, too, that there are plenty of wines by the glass, so we could sample unfamiliar sips such as a pink Amiran Vepkhvadze Otskhanuri from Imereti ($14).
Berlin is fascinated with Georgian wines, having focused on European restaurants through his career as a wine director in the Bay Area. So, he thought, why not add European food to complement the interesting drinks? To create the menu, he called on chef Irma Hernandez, who had worked for more than a decade at the former Lowell’s, where Khom Loi Thai is now.
And he worked hard to make sure this is legit Georgian.
“The menu here is a collaborative effort between myself and Irma, but a lot of the initial recipes come from my close friend Ketevan Mindorashvili,” Berlin said. “Ketevan is one of the best chefs in the Republic of Georgia, at a restaurant called the Crazy Pomegranate, and she was kind enough to spend a couple of months here with Irma and me last summer, showing us how to cook Georgian cuisine as authentically as possible.”
Side note: It’s now well-known in the local food world that Berlin’s partner is Sebastopol restaurateur Lowell Sheldon, who in 2021 was accused of sexual harassment and, in one instance, sexual assault, by a dozen former employees. It’s a long, sordid tale that nearly cost Piala its alcohol-use permit. Sheldon is still involved, but not legally allowed to work at Piala or enter the kitchen.
Eating here is the kind of experience I adore. I’d never had Georgian food, and I could not have told you what some of these delicacies were without looking them up before I tried them. Curiosities included pickled bladdernut tree flowers that came with a plate of house-fermented vegetables and tasted kind of like walnuts ($10) and khevsureti that was simply cheese baked into a hot, herbed pie that looked like a quesadilla ($14).
And what did I think of kuchmachi, which is chicken hearts and livers simmered with tomato, ground walnuts and garlic ($14)? It turned out this dish wasn’t my bag, but then again, I’ve never much cared for liver.
I admit I can’t tell you if this is “authentic,” but most everything else I tried was delicious, and it’s always so fun to explore. Don’t expect the small (if there even is one) wait staff to explain dishes — just pick and choose, and experiment. The menu was quite brief when the place first opened, but now there’s a nice amount, some dozen options.
Bites are generally small, like the trio of pkhali appetizers — soft dollops of creamy spiced walnut paste alongside fuchsia beet terrine and loose curls of fried eggplant stuffed with carrots ($12). A sprinkle of pomegranate seeds adds crunch; leafy herbs add brightness.
It was pouring rain on my visit, so I gravitated toward the more warming, soothing dishes. I said yes to the chvishtari: golden corn cakes oozing melted cheese, served with a side of lobio, a fragrant, garlicky bean stew ($15). Add a touch of the tabletop sour rhubarb and fermented chile-tomato sauces for extra kick.
A clay crock of steaming hot chashushuli may not seem like it would be for everyone, as it’s based on lamb head and neck. But the stew is so satisfying, like a highly aromatic goulash, a slow-cooked melding of potatoes, tomatoes, chickpeas and spices and herbs such as basil, chile pepper, parsley and fenugreek, ($16). Lamb head and neck meat is so rich and tender, and in chashushuli, it’s fried to give it a touch of crispness, like carnitas. Dunk in the crusty bread that in Georgia would be called shoti and shaped like a canoe but here is a sliced loaf.
Soko is pretty straightforward though excellent. It’s a savory toss of sauteed chanterelle, black trumpet, hedgehog, shiitake and oyster mushrooms dressed in fresh herbs, spring onions and fiery bites of chile flakes ($18). And timid types will have no trouble with kebabi, grilled beef and lamb skewers with sumac yogurt sauce ($15).
Anyone still wondering about Georgian food can do a test run with happy hour, when wines by the glass are half-price and bargain bites include creamy sheep’s milk farm cheese dotted with sunflower oil and herbs ($6, regularly $10) and classic Georgian dumplings stuffed with spiced beef and pork, kale and ricotta or winter squash (three for $9, regularly $12).
Yes, the dumplings aren’t that different from the Chinese dumplings we all know, but with these, you can tell your friends that you ate “khinkali.”
Carey Sweet is a Sebastopol-based food and restaurant writer. Read her restaurant reviews every other week in Sonoma Life. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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