Go to Russia and you’ll hear everyone raving about Georgian cuisine. Come to Iberia in Islington and you’ll understand why.
Iberia presents itself as a nondescript restaurant, nested in between other small restaurants and convenience stores. The outdoor patio is all brown and neat lines, furnished with minimal wooden furniture. Indoors, the venue is split over two levels, both furnished with padded high-back chairs and rectangular wooden tables. If it wasn’t for the horn vessels on from the walls, there would be no reminder of the remote provenance of the food. A few more bits of paraphernalia or old photographs would add character to this understated space.
Iberia is a quiet restaurant, but not void of atmosphere. The local music in the background is varied and enjoyable and the customers - couples, small groups of local and a few homesick Georgians - appreciate the relaxed environment. The service is discreet and almost invisible. Staff, seemingly hailing from Georgia, are wonderfully attentive but won’t be interacting with you unless needed.
Don’t be fooled by the name. Iberia is the ancient name of Georgia, a recent country born from the ashes of the USSR. If you expect chorizo and tortillas, you may be disappointed but you should give Georgian cuisine a chance since it is just as good if not better than Spanish. Wedged in between the Caucasus and the Middle East, Georgian cuisine fuses successfully both influences in what was once described as “table scraps from Heaven” and the name and fame are both well deserved. The key ingredients are walnut, aromatic herbs, garlic and pomegranate grains, distributed in a menu including cold starters (£4 - £7), hot starters (£4.50 - £7), soup (£5.50), mains (£7 - £14), extras (£1.50 – “3.50) and desserts (£3 - £4).
The badrijani (roast aubergine in walnut sauce and spices with pomegranate seeds) and the kuch machi (beef giblets with walnut and pomegranate seeds) are both perfectly cooked and wonderfully spiced. The first is also lusciously oily, while the latter displays a prowess in cooking meat since the giblets are amazingly tender. The lobio is a very typical dish. The red beans, steamed with Georgian spices and served in an earthenware pot, are smooth and comforting and at the same time full of delicately spicy flavour. The chakhohbili (chicken braised in tomato, fresh coriander and spices) is excellent although the ratio between the meat and the wonderful pan fried baby potatoes it comes served with should be turned the other way around. The spices - much smoother and creamier than Indian or Middle Eastern spices - are fantastic. You’ll get a world of flavour without burning your taste buds since dishes are never more than mildly hot.
The desserts are more European. The medoki is an hybrid between chocolate sponge cake and honey and condensed milk pudding, while the walnut rolls resemble French pastry although heavier. Other positive surprises are the dense white corn bread and the traditional adjika, thick spicy sauce ideal to accompany most dishes.
With no other country represented, Iberia is possibly the best venue in London to taste some excellent Georgian wine. There are fifteen types of white and red (£13 - £37 for a bottle and £5 - £7.50 for a 250 ml glass). Other specialties are the borjomi Georgian sparkling water, the tarhuna tarragon lemonade (which is bright green with an unusual, pleasant taste) and Georgian and Armenian brandies.
The Last Word
The mains are slightly overpriced, especially when you compare their size with the generous starters. However, you shouldn’t be put off by the cost. Iberia provides a cultural gastronomic experience not to be missed.