When I recently invited a friend to dinner at the new Uzbek restaurant Silk Road in Fort Myers, she raised questioning eyebrows.
“Yes,” I told her. “From Uzbekistan.”
She didn’t look convinced. In Fort Myers we do Italian well, and Mexican, and—in the last decade or so—French. But more exotic fare has been slow to advance into this community, which had me worried about Silk Road’s potential. When people will wait an hour and a half during season for a table at a big chain restaurant and yet many excellent independent eateries sit empty, I had to wonder if a place like Silk Road could gain a foothold in Southwest Florida.
Warm eggplant salad
Yet those worries, I saw on the night of our dinner, were completely unfounded. By 7 p.m., every one of the restaurant’s tables was full. Granted, the space is small, but I’ve sat in plenty of small but deserted restaurants.
Our meal began with a selection of first courses shared between us. We had a chilled salad made of shredded carrots with garlic and paprika ($6), warm eggplant topped with diced tomatoes and parsley ($9), a blinchik (rolled crepe filled with ground beef, $2) and a round of Uzbek bread called non ($3). The food was exceptionally tasty, fresh and full of flavor, and though the ingredients were familiar, the dishes made us feel we weren’t in Florida anymore.
My friend and I agreed that we could have made a meal from the first course alone, but—curious to explore the range of Uzbek food—we ordered entrées as well. We had Uzbek palov ($9), a mix of rice, chickpeas, raisins and shredded carrots topped with chunks of beef that reminded me of Middle Eastern pilaf, and a selection of kebabs that featured beef, lamb, chicken and shrimp ($18). We also ordered a side of grilled vegetables ($2) and hummus ($2) to accompany the kebabs. Once again the flavors were exceptional, both familiar and surprising at once.
For dessert we had the baklava ($5), which arrived as a trio of bite-size confections. This is one of my favorite desserts to order because no two versions are ever the same. The Uzbek take was drier than other baklava I’ve had (in a good way; I never like it soaked in honey), and the flavors of the pecans and pistachios came through. I enjoyed mine with a pot of Uzbek tea ($6), a steeped combination of black leaves, lemon and sugar that made for the perfect end to the meal.
Silk Road is lovely inside, with walls decorated to look like the stone arches in ancient cities along the old trade routes, places like Samarkand and Tashkent. Its succinct wine list includes house wines covering varietals we’ve come to expect on wine lists, like chardonnay and cabernet, plus unique selections from in and around Central Asia, such as Saperavi, a dry red from Georgia. The Russian beer Baltika is also available. The restaurant is not overly formal, and it’s possible to have a remarkable meal for two at less than $100. I predict that its tables continue to fill nightly, in and out of season.
8646 Gladiolus Drive, Fort Myers, 239-689-4845. Open Tuesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; closed Mondays. Wheelchair-accessible. Reservations recommended.