Mapshalia is as unassuming as they come. The entrance – a small doorway down a few steps – is marked simply in Georgian, the throng of locals dragging on their cigarettes outside (smoking indoors is now illegal in Georgia) the only give away that there’s something worth seeing inside. The atmosphere is exceedingly casual. You’ll be as comfortable here as you’d feel showing up at a family braai in slops and a faded “I’m drunk and you’re still ugly” t-shirt. The small dining hall, covered in Soviet era plaster scenes, would be stiflingly hot in summer, but thankfully there are tiny, private cubicles hidden behind swing doors with windows set in at road level that are much cooler. And when I say tiny, I mean TINY. Like don’t bring your big boned Aunt Hilda here for lunch tiny. Small benches, only 20cm wide and not much higher, are crammed right up against the walls, leaving just enough space for the low table on which they will pile on your Megrelian feast, starting with chunks of gloriously chewy bread and a spicy, gazpacho like soup in which to dunk it. If Georgia were a Magic Mike film, Megrelian cuisine would be Joe Manganiello – much heavier on the hotness, so make sure you have a bottle of local Tbilisi beer or cream lemonade to swig before you tuck in.
Our English menus were brought to us by a very friendly waitress, which set the homely tone for the whole meal. You only have to travel in Tbilisi for a short while to realise how friendliness in wait staff is not a given. In fact, it’s the exception to the rule. The staff at Mapshalia were all delightfully welcoming. The menu is small with the most glaring omission being khachapuri, the Megrelian version of which does not only get cheese stuffed between the layers of bread, but also has a liberal dose of sulguni slathered on top. But seeing as you’re in Georgia, and as such probably have khachapuri oozing out your pores as you climb the hills around Tbilisi by now, you can do without the carbs for one meal.
The stand out dish on the menu is what some say is the best elarji in Tbilisi – cornmeal cooked with sulguni cheese till it forms an oozy, stringy, glorious gloop. It is richer than Warren Buffet could ever hope to be, so the simple meats on offer make for the perfect pairing. The roast pork was a little on the tough side (like most of the roast meat style that is popular in the region), but was very tasty and the chicken livers were crispily fried on the outside, just the way I like them when they are done this simply with a bit of onion. The spinach pkhali (vegetable and walnut pâté) was flecked with chilli flakes and the portion was enormous, so save some of the aforementioned bread to use as a transportation device for when it arrives. We did not have the kharcho (beef soup with rice) or the kupati sausage, both of which other travellers have highly recommended when visiting Mapshalia. The kupati was not on the menu, and as I have subsequently learnt that it’s basically intestine stuffed with pig lung, liver, spleen and spices, I’m sorry I didn’t get to try it before I knew what it was, because now I can never unknow those facts…
Mapshalia is a place where you can get raucous with your family while you do supra the Georgian way, or grab a quick bite to eat before you make your way further down Davit Aghmashenebeli Ave. The prices are ludicrously cheap. Our entire meal, drinks included, came to just 20GEL ($US8). A service charge is not automatically added, but you’d really want to tip the wonderful staff in this tiny establishment.The restaurant is located under the once grand Apollo Theatre and apparently used to serve as a ticketing office. On the verge of being condemned, the theatre has now been restored to within an inch of its life, some say for the worse. So be sure to check it out when you leave and ask yourself “What would the Property Brothers say?”.