Recently, I was invited by Nanuli Bigvava, the owner of the Mandarin Cafe in Sochi, Russia for a visit. Her place is in on busy, central Vinogradnaya Street. Despite its very good local reputation, I had never eaten there. Nanuli, who is originally from Sukhum, Abkhazia, sets the gold standard for charming hostesses in Sochi. Her warm and inviting presence alone makes Mandarin Cafe worth a visit.
Nanuli invited me and several friends to sample the menu on her dime. That is pretty unusual here, anyway. Then we tried the food and I was surprised by the diversity and sophistication. We had several salads, including one of fresh greens, avocado, tomato, shrimp and strawberry and, also, a seafood salad that really stood out. I also tried the rib eye, which exceeded my expectations, with a surprisingly dry Russian red wine, Grand Vostok, from Krasnodar Region’s wine producing district. My companion had a simple, but very good warm spinach soup and enjoyed trying several of Nanuli’s kitchen’s deserts. Given her heritage, I expected Nanuli’s menu to be dominated by food of the Caucasus. When I asked her about this, she quickly pointed out that in addition to her regular menu, her kitchen was ready to prepare the distinctive fare of Abkhazia.
Nanuli has always been interested in food; she loved preparing dishes for her family growing up in her native Abkhazia. So there was no question in her mind about the direction her life should take after she finished high school. She came to Sochi to study at a culinary school. (At that time, Abkhazia and Russia were both parts of the Soviet Union, so there was no border. Now, the border between the two sits just past the Olympic Park.) Nanuli got married, had a son and opened a cafe in Sochi. However, with conflict in Abkhazia in 1992, she sold her holdings to help out family displaced there.
Eventually in 2010, Nanuli reopened in Sochi, this time the fashionable Mandarin Cafe. Her menu is eclectic for Sochi, but she clearly is imaginative and likes to challenge herself and her staff to show something to diners that they don’t regularly see in Sochi. Nanuli eventually divorced, but wanted her son, Slava, to have an American education, so at the age of 19, he went to the United States and studied, later receiving his university degree there. He now works as an auditor for an oil company in Houston, Texas. Slava, who is her biggest cheerleader and advisor, helps her with ideas that he sees in restaurants in the United States. Indeed, it was Slava who reached out to me across 9 time zones and suggested that I meet with his mother.
Nanuli is already thinking about the thousands of international diners who will come to Sochi. There are plans for new international dishes on the menu and she openly solicited ideas from me about what American and western travelers might like to experience in the Mandarin Cafe. This is not a one-size-fits-all, take-it-or-leave-it restaurant owner. She has also begun the planning to get involved in catering for the Olympic period.