After months of speculation about its future and a delay linked to accusations against local restaurateur Lowell Sheldon, Sonoma County’s first Georgian restaurant and wine bar, Piala, has opened in Sebastopol.
Piala co-owner Jeff Berlin, a longtime Bay Area wine director and restaurateur, is a fan of the Eastern European country and its cuisine.
“I have long loved the country, the food, the wine and the people. I’ve made several journeys there,” he said.
Berlin has worked at several European restaurants in the Bay Area, including Oakland’s À Côté, which has a Mediterranean focus and features a lengthy list of Eastern European wines.
At Piala, the menu is concise, with just a handful of dishes. There is Pkhlovani, a cheese pie with greens; Soko, a mushroom dish with tarragon; Ch’Visht’ari, cornbread with cheese; and Mtsvadi, grilled pork with pomegranate and marinated onions.
Georgian food reflects the country’s location, with a coast on the Black Sea and neighbors of Turkey, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Russia. The result is a delicious mashup of European, Persian, Turkish and Mediterranean cuisine.
Berlin helped develop recipes for Piala with Chef Irma Hernandez and plans to add more dishes to the menu in the coming months, including Khachapuri, a cheese-filled bread, and Khinkali, meat-filled soup dumplings.
“It’s a good starting point for showing some of my favorite Georgian food, and we’ll add specials,” he said.
The food and wine of Georgia also reflect the country’s long and sometimes bloody relationship with its northern neighbor Russia — 20% of its territories remain occupied by Russia, and it was a Soviet-ruled country for decades, up until 1991. Georgia’s bustling cities are modern and cosmopolitan, but, according to Berlin, its cuisine isn’t widely known outside its borders.
“There’s so much Georgian cuisine. It’s mostly unknown to Americans. The country is the size of Switzerland but has 22 winegrowing areas, and every village and town has its food specialties,” Berlin said. (Georgia has many ancient vineyards and is one of the oldest winemaking regions in the world; some consider it the birthplace of winemaking.)
“It was a pilgrimage that took me there, but once you try the food, it’s a no-brainer, Berlin said. “I fell in love with the people and the land, and it was (a) pretty immediate thought that I would open a Georgian restaurant one day.”
But the development of his Georgian restaurant stalled when Piala co-owner and Sebastopol restaurateur Lowell Sheldon was accused of sexual harassment and, in one instance, sexual assault, by a dozen former employees.
Sheldon denied the accusations. Several business partners distanced themselves from Sheldon, and Sebastopol’s planning department rejected an alcohol license for Piala, submitted by Sheldon.
The planning department eventually approved the alcohol permit in July, with the conditions that the license would bar Sheldon from drinking or serving alcohol at Piala and from directly managing emploees, The Press Democrat reported. (The alcohol permit is now in Berlin’s name.)
“This is a passion project for the two of us, and I don’t think hiding from the issues was ever an option,” Berlin said, adding that Sheldon had chosen to confront the accusations head-on and remain involved in the project.
“This is just something we both dreamed of doing,” he said.
Details: Open noon to 10:30 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday; no reservations. 7233 Healdsburg Ave., Sebastopol; 707-861-9186, pialanaturalwine.com