Galewood may not seem like the most obvious place to open a restaurant that specializes in food that comes from Georgia, Russia and other countries that were once part of the Soviet Union.
For Eldar and Ruslan Afashokov, that was precisely the point. The two brothers grew up in Georgia, a country south of Russia, near Mount Elbrus. When Ruslan moved to Chicago three years ago, they looked in vain for a place that served Georgian food.
“We looked around and there wasn’t anything like it,” said Ruslan Afashokov. “There was a place further away that was kind of like it, but it wasn’t quite right. So we decided to open our own.”
The Elbrus restaurant opened for business on the last day of 2015. Since then, it has been slowly, but surely, building up clientele, drawing customers from the area and beyond.
The connections between Russia and Georgia go back centuries. In 1801, the Russian Empire annexed it, and it remained part of the country for much of the next two centuries — first as an imperial subject, then as one of the republics that made up the Soviet Union. By the late 19th century, Georgian food became popular in Russia.
Like other Soviet republics, Georgia regained its independence in 1991, but certain cultural links persisted, and many Georgian food staples remain popular in Russia to this day
Before coming to the United States, Ruslan ran a restaurant in Russia for seven years. When the brothers decided to establish that restaurant, Ruslan wound up handling the cooking while Eldar handled the corporate and financial aspects. Eldar said that he and his brother are equal partners.
“What’s his is mine and what’s mine is his,” he explained.
The Elbrus restaurant is located at 6818 W. North Avenue, on the former site of the My Mother’s Chicken soul food restaurant. The space has been remodeled and redecorated.
Paintings and photos of the Mount Elbrus line the walls, with comfortable couch seating lending the restaurant an air of home. Songs from all over the world pipe through the speakers. Everything, Ruslan Afashokov said, is designed to put customers in a pleasant mood.
“We want [customers] to feel calm and comfortable,” he said. “A lot of people come here and sit for hours; just sit and talk.”
But, of course, food is a big part of the experience, too. Looking at the menu, one finds classic Georgian selections, such as shasklik grilled lamb meat and shorpa lamb and potato soup.
“Our lamb shasklik … there’s nothing like it anywhere else [in this area],” Afashokov said with pride.
Other items would be familiar to anyone who grew up in Russia and many of the surrounding countries, such as borsch beetroot soup and olivier salad.
Afashokov said that in addition to Georgia and Russia, the menu has items from Ukraine and Central Asian countries. When it came to creating the menu, he said, the quality was important.
“Our menu is a bit small, but everything is very delicious,” said Afashokov. “The ingredients are and the food is freshly prepared every day. Everything in our restaurant is organic. We cook our meats over firewood.”
Even something as small as a bread that’s served with the soup is made in-house. In some cases, the restaurant goes to great lengths to obtain the ingredients. Afashokov said that he wanted to serve a syrup made with Hippophae berries in the teas, only to run into an unexpected problem.
“There are none here, so we have to get them from the Elbrus mountain region,” he said.
That is not to say that everything that is served at the restaurant is homemade. The cheaper teas, for example, were store-bought.
When asked how the restaurant has performed so far, Afashokov said that he’s optimistic.
“It’s getting better and better,” he said. “Everyone is gradually finding out about us.”
Elbrus is located across the street from Oak Park’s northern border and only a few blocks from Elmwood Park. Afashokov said that many of the customers come from the city and the two suburbs, while some come from exurbs and outside of the state.
Afashokov said Elbrus has become a gathering spot for the local Russian-speaking community, which, he said, is larger than many people assume.
“A lot of the times, [Russian-speaking] people come here to celebrate birthdays, holidays,” he said.
At the same time, he emphasized that most of the clients are American. When this reporter visited the restaurant on a weekday, most of the customers were Russian-speakers. A Saturday crowd was more evenly split between the two groups.
Sheila Dalton, of Oak Park, said that she heard about Elbrus from a woman at a place where she works out. Intrigued, she and her friend decided to check it out.
“[The food] was delicious,” Dalton said. “It was made fresh, with a very complex favor. We’ll come back.”
Her friend, Bonnie Bragrega, also praised the food.
The restaurant also got praise from the Russian customers. Alina Botasheva, who lives in Moscow and was in town to visit a friend, said she was impressed with what the place.
“I liked it a lot,” she said. “The food was delicious and the environment was very comfortable. And the staff was very polite.”