For Valentine's Day this year, a group of us headed to the Georgian restaurant on the second floor of the bus depot in the diverse neighborhood of Aksaray. I'd heard a lot about this no-frills place, with its chacha served in recycled plastic bottles and down-home dumplings, catering to the Georgians traveling to and from their motherland, and had been wanting to go for a while. After a short tram ride to the Yusufpaşa stop, we wound our way through the streets of Aksaray, passing a variety of restaurants serving a range of ethnic cuisines from Uygur to Russian. We walked until the street dead-ended into the bus depot. Signs written in the playful, bouncy Georgian script hung from travel agencies. Everything else in the depot seemed to be shutting down, but we were happy to find that our destination was still open and serving up food. With its halogen lights, clashing patterned carpets and tablecloths, and smoke-filled air, it had the feel of a nursing home rec room... if nursing homes allowed smoking. In short, it was the perfect anti-Valentine's location.
One of our friends, who had been a one-time resident of Georgia and had been to the restaurant before stepped up to the plate and ordered our dinner, which included pretty much everything available on the menu. We cracked a plastic bottle of chacha and started off on an evening of toasts. There were an few tables full of locals smoking, eating, and enjoying the evening. Although we'd been an initial attraction as the only non-Georgians at the joint, each table soon returned to their own merriment. Not long after our first toast, our first few dishes arrived- a sort of beef stew, which was quite tasty, and breaded pork loaf. The next course was khachapuri- a type of salty cheese-topped pizza, and soon after, a piping hot plate of khingali arrived. The steam visibly rose from the plate of pouch-shaped dumplings in waves, giving the illusion of a trip-down-memory-lane special effect from a 90s sitcom. Our seasoned friend showed us the proper way of eating one, which he'd been shown by a local on a prior visit. Apparently, he had been told to grab the bunched part of the dough, bite off a corner, and suck out the broth as if he were pleasuring a woman. We tried the technique, but kept it fairly clean.
After a round or two of khingali and a few more toasts, a loud slap resounded in the room. It brought on the same type of stillness a tree brings when it's fallen in the forest. I thought it had been a good-natured and amicable, albeit strong, pat on the shoulder, but my view was blocked and apparently, one man at the table next to us had slapped the other in the face. The tension in the room vacillated from high to low like heavy breathing, until it peaked. For what seemed to be a very long stretch of time, the two men stared at each other and talked in whispers, their faces inches from each other's. We began to move our table of seven one inch at a time away from theirs. One table, noticing our comical crawl, began to laugh at the situation. A waitres, donning a fanny pack and completely unfazed, intervened intermittently with loud screams from across the room. After a few more minutes of bulging neck veins and intense stares, the tension drained from the room like a pierced khingali, and the men were chummy again. We made a few more toasts and then went to seek out dessert at a Russian restaurant up the street to top off our Valentine's Day evening. It was a wonderful way to celebrate- who needs dripping candles and chocolate hearts when you can have a night of chacha toasts and a side of Georgian flair?