Askaneli Georgian restaurant opens in downtown Fort Lauderdale

On the eve of opening Askaneli, his new Georgian restaurant in Fort Lauderdale, Ukrainian owner Oleksandr Uvarov faced a family crisis in Kyiv.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February forced Uvarov to move swiftly, evacuating wife Victoria and daughters Alisa and Vanya to the United States, as missiles began striking the capital city. Once his family was safe in South Florida, Uvarov sponsored five Ukrainian refugees and rented them apartments in Broward County.

A few had previous culinary experience, so Uvarov hired them as cooks, dishwashers and waitstaff, training under Askaneli’s Georgian-born executive chef, Lali Mosia.

Now Ukrainian and Georgian immigrants are working side by side at Askaneli, which quietly debuted on May 15 on the ground floor of the NuRiver Landing condo complex overlooking Fort Lauderdale’s New River. Uvarov’s 5,000-square-foot eatery is an opulent postcard of white and slate-gray, framed by an elaborate water fountain near the valet drop-off area, with marble patio tabletops, a hookah bar and an elevated bandstand in the dining room.

But this is no fork-and-knife restaurant, and its suite of traditional Georgian cuisine insists — or to be exact, Askaneli’s servers will insist — that customers eat with their bare hands.

“The most authentic Georgian food should be eaten with your hands,” said Uvarov, a first-time restaurateur who doesn’t speak English but spoke through his translator, Askaneli’s manager Nataliya Bobadilla. “There are steps to eating our food the right way. At this place, you’re meant to have a full experience.”

So why did Uvarov decide to open a Georgian restaurant instead of a Ukrainian one? There are two reasons, Bobadilla said. First, Georgian food is Uvarov’s favorite cuisine, “his best friends are Georgian” and his “dream was to own a restaurant.” Asked about his other business interests, she replied that he’s a “strong, independent person who worked all his life achieving many goals.”

The other reason Uvarov opened Askaneli: to hire Mosia, an accomplished chef whose 100-year-old family recipes form the spine of Askaneli’s expansive menu. Mosia previously worked at New York Georgian eateries including Cheeseboat and Guest House in Brooklyn and Chama Mama in Manhattan.

“Eighty years ago, my great-grandmother owned a cafe in Georgia,” Mosia says through Bobadilla. “My grandma continued the tradition, and kept her box of recipes hidden and safe through the years until I was taught by my mother.”

With those recipes, Askaneli salutes the rustic simplicity of Georgian cooking in dishes at once different and familiar. There’s rich Adjarian khachapuri ($24), a bulging flatbread shaped like a dugout canoe, with a runny yolk in the middle of a pool of molten, briny cheese called suluguni. At Askaneli, the yolk, the cow’s milk cheese and heaps of butter are stirred tableside into an indulgent fusion, and customers then dunk hunks of bread into the mixture.

And then there is khinkali ($25), a quintet of baseball-size dumplings that, yes, must also be eaten a certain way. Kseniia Saenko, Askaneli’s lead server, says these doughy dumplings are best held by the topknot and nibbled on the bottom, so the broth inside pours into your mouth first. Biting into the savory veal-and-onion filling afterward finishes the experience, she said.

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“This is the only way to eat this,” Saenko insisted, biting into the underside of a dumpling. “No two chefs will shape the khinkali and khachapuri by hand the same. When you eat this, you know it’s made by Lali.”

Other dishes include eggplant rolls ($16), made with cuts of eggplant smeared with walnut paste, garlic and cilantro, then rolled into blintzes and garnished with pomegranate seeds for one of Askaneli’s lightest appetizers. Askaneli also serves cornish hens ($20), flattened then cooked in cast-iron skillets called tabakas to impart a crispier skin. Along with salads and seafood platters, steaks and kebabs, there is chakapuli ($25), a meaty veal, scallion and tarragon stew in a simmering white-wine broth.

If the name Askaneli sounds familiar, it’s actually a popular Georgian high-end winemaker of fermented wines and chacha (a type of potent grape brandy). Bobadilla says the brand has international name recognition, and that Uvarov got permission to use the name Askaneli from the winemaker’s two owners, brothers Jimsher and Gocha Chkhaidze.

Georgian wines are fermented underground for six months in cavernous terra-cotta jugs called qvevri, a technique that dates back thousands of years, according to UNESCO. At Askaneli, bottles of the namesake brand range from $30 to as much as $1,000 (off-menu), and are poured from qvevri into wine glasses.

The restaurant’s Happy Hour — from 4 to 7 pm Mondays through Fridays — serves $5 wines, $4 Georgian beer and $10 cocktails. Live bands perform daily during dinner.

“There are so many Georgian restaurants in New York and DC but very few established restaurants in South Florida,” Bobadilla said. “We are not scared of competition. People just haven’t tried our kitchen yet.”

Askaneli Restaurant, at 511 SE Fifth Ave., No. 101 (inside NuRiver Landing), Fort Lauderdale, is open noon to midnight Mondays through Thursdays and noon to 2 am Fridays through Sundays. Call 754-200-5917 or go to

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