After the drive from Fort Myers and walk of a few blocks down Fifth Avenue South, my husband, Kevin, and I are already weary travelers who find a chic oasis as we step through the open doors into Bha! Bha! Persian Bistro. Soft lights, ruby-colored walls and quiet Persian music greet us as smoothly as the young women who show us to our table. We pass a low seating arrangement scattered with colorful cushions near the front door, a prim row of white-clothed tables and several gorgeous ivory wall sculptures that resemble sand blown into wave formations as we are led through a silky saffron-colored curtain to the rear dining room. Seating for tables along the left wall is covered in a teal green fabric that glistens in the candle glow. I relax into the luxurious seat, resting my arm on a small rolled cushion as we are handed hefty menus.
Our server, Michele, indicates that the bartender is muddling some lemon-saffron martinis and persuades Kevin to try one ($12). I order a glass of the 2009 4 Vines Zinfandel ($9) as we peruse the menu.
Kick off your night with a lemon-saffron martini or something else from the bar.
Spicy garlic mussels ($14) and pistachio lamb meatballs ($13) are tempting, but the kashke bademjune–flash fried eggplants, served with Persian whey, fresh herbs, olives and feta—are our appetizer pick ($11). What a fortunate choice. Food is often described as “melting in your mouth,” but this eggplant disappears on the tongue in a sensory tease of salty, creamy and silky. We sop the smoky tomato sauce and whey drizzled on the plate with rather dense pita triangles, and those bites are sharpened with bits of scallion. Exquisite. I consider stabbing Kevin’s hand with my fork as he takes the last bite.
I’m glad I quelled the savage urge because he shares his salad with me, an arugula mango pear salad dressed in pomegranate vinaigrette ($11). His salad is mild and sweet, while mine, the hearts of palm with Bulgarian feta ($14), is more savory. It is spiked with pungent greens, red onion, mint, olives and feta. We trade bites in an interplay of sweetness and spice.
Kevin orders a glass of the 2010 Cryptic ($9), just in time for the trumpet blasts. Not really, but two young men do carry his braised lamb shank entree ($36) to the table. They ceremoniously lift the lamb from the tomato-saffron broth and place it on his plate. My spicy apricot chicken ($24) is set before me with much less fanfare, but the wild currants and apricots glisten like gems. Rado Sundic, the dining room manager, appears. He bows his head, approves our selections, and invites us to enjoy our meal.
Braised lamb shank with eggplant, garlic and shitake mushrooms is served in a tomato-saffron broth worth dipping your pita in.
Kevin says the lamb—which is a huge portion and topped with eggplant— is the “least lamby-lamb he’s ever tasted.” To translate this alliterative praise, it is succulent and doesn’t have the metallic taste that inferior lamb dishes sometimes do. Its broth is light, excellent for bread dipping. My dish allows further opportunity to see-saw between sweet and savory. The chicken pieces are smoky, as are the grilled vegetables. The fruit alone is sweeter than I want. I soon learn to spear a bit of chicken, fruit and basmati rice on the fork in one bite. The balance is perfect. I’ve discovered a delicious secret: Persian food is, well, sexy.
Coffee ($5) and desserts ($8 each) mean our voyage is nearing its end. Even the coffee presentation shows how Bha! Bha! attends to the details of the journey. Small French-press pots arrive with a lacquered box full of sugar crystals and other sweetener options. The Persian baklava is not a honey-drenched confection, but a pistachio-laden pastry moistened slightly with rosewater. Kevin orders chocolate cake. It’s amazing—a concoction from that delightful borderland between fudge and pound cake.
Before leaving, we speak with Michael Mir, executive chef and the owner/proprietor. I ask why Persian restaurants are almost unheard of in Southwest Florida. He thinks it is because most Persian restaurants stay traditional and rarely take a fusion approach. But he wants to attract “more sophisticated diners, as well as those who are younger and more adventurous.”It explains his upgraded location, moving his well-received, homier restaurant in North Naples to its sleek new Fifth Avenue South quarters. His approach is to take a classic Persian dish, one that an Iranian would recognize, but to offer a twist, so that they would also say, “My maadar never made it like this!” If she did, you were a lucky kid. And you probably never left home. The rest of us will find consolation and delight by journeying the Silk Road via Bha! Bha! Persian Bistro.
Finish the night off with some Persian baklava.
Bha! Bha! Persian Bistro
865 Fifth Ave S., Naples; (239) 594-5557 bhabhabistro.com
Open 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., daily.
Vegetarian options. Wheelchair accessible. Credit cards accepted.