If you can pronounce khachapuri.
A native of Moscow, Portnoy has pulled from his childhood influences, as well as his experiences at The Restaurant at Meadowood, to create Satellite Republic – a moped outfitted with a tandoor oven for crafting made-to-order breads for sandwiches, snacks and street food.
I had the opportunity to find him at his San Francisco debut in front of No Shop on Valencia (next to Four Barrel). Judging from the line that had formed by the time I arrived, there was no doubt in my mind that his was going to be a successful San Francisco institution.
As I waited, watched, and pondered the menu, it struck me that I had no clue whatsoever what my options were. Of the eight words on the menu, I understood three: ‘lamb,’ ‘sandwich,’ and ‘with.'
The first item confirmed my best guess - an open-faced lamb sandwich. Fresh, warm, hot bread straight out of the oven served as the base, and was topped with delicious slices of fatty lamb (cooked perfectly medium-rare at the bottom of the tandoor) from Don Watson in Napa, raw onions, cilantro, and a sour plumb sauce called tkemali.
That didn't stop me from scarfing it down, mind you. The melding of flavors and textures made for a perfect, elevated light lunch on the run.
Then came the menu item of which I could comprehend only a single word:
But the kicker here was the final word around which I couldn’t wrap my lips. Adjkia, a deep red, mole-colored spread made from chilies, basil, garlic and marjoram, among other components, graced the top of the khachapuri. It had a smoky/sweet quality I equated to harissa, which cut through the gooey, salty, creamy cheese without dominating it.
This was his first day, so there was plenty of room for trial and error. The tandir bread was a little burnt, and the wait was long – really long, and for made-to-order breads I can understand some of the delay. But if this is to become a viable, long term, feed the masses type of venture, something is going to have to give.
In terms of quality, flavor, and uniqueness, there is no doubt that this can be a huge hit - and I for once sincerely hope it is. The ingredients were fresh, the tastes were different yet friendly, and the concept is one-of-a-kind. But if Satellite Republic is going to succeed, Portnoy is going to have work out some of the logistical kinks - which I have no doubt he will.
Apologizing for the wait, he explained that not only was his first trial run for the public, but that he was not used to working in such a small space. However, when I asked him if he was having fun, a wave of joy spilled over his face and smile stretched from ear to ear.
“Oh yeah! This is great!”