As a teenager in Winter Park, Florida, Jonathan Nelms was more familiar with Georgia the state than Georgia the country. But a year spent as a high school exchange student in northern Russia, just as the Soviet Union was crumbling, permanently changed the course of his life.
Nelms and his business partner (and wife) Laura Dunleavy Nelms are the owners and principal operators behind Supra, Washington DC’s first restaurant serving authentic Georgian cuisine. Supra has been open since November and has quietly built a reputation for serving hearty, delicious dishes inspired by the culinary culture of the Caucasus region. The couple decided to open Supra after growing to love Georgian cuisine during the years they lived together in Moscow, a city teeming with the languages, food culture, and traditions of citizens of former Soviet countries. Hearing many positive things about Georgia’s renaissance, they visited the country a few times and became enamored with it. A few years and a move back to the United States later, the Nelms have finally realized their vision: Supra is a fully fledged restaurant with seven months of business under its belt, and preparing for its first evolution in the form of a summer menu.
Most people familiar with fine dining in DC know Georgian food in the form of its most famous dish: khachapuri. As popularized by Compass Rose, khachapuri is bread and cheese and a baked, barely set egg, all meant to be mixed up and vaguely in the shape of a carbohydrate canoe. It’s the fancy, Eastern European version of cheesy bread; gooey, fatty, salty and incredibly satisfying due to the added element of having to play with your food.
And yes – Supra does serve that version of it, as well as several other regional variations (after all, “khachapuri” does actually just mean…cheese bread), each one of them reflecting the palate of its provenance. We tried the kubdari last night, a dish perfected in the Svaneti region of Georgia, which was more similar to a stuffed pizza in shape and execution – but filled with perfectly seasoned spicy pork and beef.
Despite billing itself as an authentic Georgian restaurant, there’s an element of playfulness and self awareness to the food at Supra – after all, neither proprietor is from the country, and only one of the two chefs – Executive Chef Malkhaz Maisashvili – actually is. However, this is somewhat liberating and lends itself to a fair degree of the summer menu giving a new twist to classic elements of Georgian cuisine. Maisashvili and Chef Lonnie Zoeller complement each other nicely and this creative pairing leads to surprisingly good dishes such as the lamb “hot dogs” we were served as appetizers, that manage to capture the best of both worlds.
Even with a new menu, Supra remains incredibly vegetarian friendly. There were plenty of substantial eggplant, mushroom, and zucchini based dishes, although most were in the smaller plate section – all of the mains were animal-based. That being said, there’s enough variety in terms of flavors and textures to satisfy adventurous palates, although I will say that Georgian food is probably not the cuisine for picky eaters.
This was my first in-depth experience with Georgian food, and Supra did not disappoint. What struck me the most was how different the flavor profile was – meats are grilled perfectly and paired with reductions made from berries or pomegranates, providing contrapuntal tartness and sweetness. It was a welcome change to citrus, which while still a classic, feels a little boring. The chicken makvalshi and the lamb neknebi were both outrageously good, and I’d come back to the restaurant for either one of those dishes alone. Georgian wine still leaves a bit to be desired – or it might just be a taste I have yet to acquire – but there’s a conscious, deliberate effort to respect what the country is producing, and it shows in the selections on offer. The food, the decor, and the service were all top notch, and I am excited to see how Supra continues to grow and improve as it finds its stride.
Photos by Sarah Gerrity, Words by Jose Lopez-Sanchez