MTSKHETA, Georgia, located 20 kilometers north of Tbilisi, might be as famous among locals for its velvety, red beans as for its stunning UNESCO World Heritage monuments.
One of Georgia’s oldest cities, and the former capital of the Kingdom of Iberia (from 300 BCE), Mtskheta is home to the country’s holiest sites, including Svetitskhoveli Cathedral and Jvari Monastery. The town is built at the confluence of the Aragvi and Mtkvari rivers, once important trading routes along the Silk Road. Today, Mtskheta remains the headquarters of the Georgian orthodox church and continues to be a popular destination for religious pilgrims.
In 1994, UNESCO designated “the Historical Monuments of Mtskheta” a World Heritage Site comprised of the area’s churches, examples of Georgia’s extraordinary medieval religious architecture, making the town a worthwhile day trip from Tbilisi.
Jvari Monastery is the most visually dramatic of the UNESCO monuments, perched atop a cliff over looking the entire valley. Built in the 6th century CE, the legend states that Georgia’s most famous female evangelist, St. Nino, erected a wooden cross on the site of a pagan temple. The cross worked miracles, worshipers arrived and a small church was built. The large church, standing today, was built around 600 CE on the same holy site. After navigating the hairpin curves up to the church, take a moment to bask in the sweeping views of Mtskheta and the two rivers below.
Down in the old section of Mtskheta, Svetitskhoveli Cathedral towers over the town. The massive church — literally called “The Living Pillar Cathedral” — is the the holiest site in Georgia. Legend dictates that the original church (4th century) was built on the burial ground of Jesus’ robe. As the church was being constructed, the central column rose into the air and levitated for one day. Magical liquid began to flow from the column, healing all diseases. The church was rebuilt in the 11th century in the Cross-Dome style, and remains the 2nd largest church in Georgia today.
And then, there are the beans.
When I first arrived in Tbilisi, everyone I met insisted I had to try lobio, Georgian beans. “But not in Tbilisi,” they’d say, “you need to go to Mtskheta for the best beans.”
So, what exactly is lobio?
The dish varies slightly by region. In Mtskheta, lobio is made from red kidney beans, slow-cooked and mashed — imagine the consistency of Mexican refried beans — but the similarities end here. Lobio is packed with herbs, heat and flavor; ingredients include onions, garlic, coriander seed, black pepper and cilantro. Traditionally, lobio is served in small clay jars with handles. A common accompaniment is mtchadi, a dense, savory cornbread.
Mtskheta’s red beans have not yet joined the town’s UNESCO monuments, but they should. The area’s best beans are found at Restaurant Salobie, a favorite stopping-off point for locals and tourists traveling between Tbilisi and Mtskheta. The indoor/outdoor casual eatery looks like a highway rest area, with large wooden picnic tables and rock-bottom prices. The menu features a extensive variety of Georgian “fast food” favorites, from cheese-stuffed khachapuri to kebabs and broth-filled dumplings, khinkali.
It’s a beautiful summer day, and the restaurant’s outside tables are filling up fast. Lunch begins with a traditional Georgian salad of tomato, cucumber, onion and spicy peppers. A platter of sulguni, white farmer’s cheese, arrives with a basket of fresh bread. I’m trying to hold back, because it’s all about the beans.
The lobio come with an assortment of DIY condiments, like spicy yellow pickled peppers and a plate piled with herbs and radishes. The beans are presented in small clay jars, and topped with a round slab of still-warm mtchadi (cornbread). Everyone has their own way of eating lobio. Some people like to crumble the cornbread and drop it into the jar, I dunk mine like a donut into coffee.
After I reach bean nirvana, the feasting continues, with plate after plate of local favorites. I dig into thick slices of cheesy khachapuri bread, deep fried pastries stuffed with spiced ground meat and Georgian-style kebabs — chock-full of coriander, served with raw onions, bright purple sumac and wrapped in paper-thin flatbread. It’s here, at Salobie, where I learn the proper way to eat khinkali, holding a giant dumpling with both hands and slurping out the molten broth inside. I eat mtsvadi, shish kebabs made with marinated pork and onions. There’s so much food, I can barely sip my mug of beer. This is undoubtedly my favorite food experience in Georgia.
But still, it’s all about the beans.
Restaurant Salobie is located on the main road from Tbilisi, just across the river from Mtskheta. If you’re traveling by taxi or local bus, the driver will know how to arrive at the restaurant.