Silk Road Tea House (This restaurant is now closed)
456 West Franklin St.
Chapel Hill, NC 27514
Review Date: (prior to 1997)
Reviewers: Dave Crescenzo, Lauren Bednarcyk, Jeremy Horne, Dilip Barman, Glenn Abbey, Joy Anandi, Margaret
Are you liberal, skinny, and left-wing? How about geeky, Jewish, and a Clinton voter with solid moral beliefs? No doubt you object to cruelty to animals, and are health-conscious. An unscientific sampling of undergraduate opinion at North Carolina State revealed these popular views of vegetarians ("List typical characteristics [political, religious, moral beliefs] of most vegetarians"). Let me add another: "They hang out at funky bistros like the Silk Road Tea House in Chapel Hill."
Our gang of seven left-wing geeks checked out the Silk Road Tea House (456 W. Franklin St., Chapel Hill) in April, and we were (largely) impressed. (Only discerning Dilip dissented, diplomatically stating that "the food wasn't perfect to my taste; but this may just be me") While the selection was not vast, it was all vegetarian, inexpensive, and wholesome. That would be enough to recommend most places (especially if you are skinny and liberal) but the setting of Silk Road is alluring: Turkish rugs and artwork on the walls; intimate tables, big family-sized dinner tables, love seats and easy chairs and pillows to plop down on; readers and writers and studiers and talkers eating, relaxing, chatting, sipping tea. The Turkish muzak was appropriate too, pleasant and unobtrusive. (They have live music on occasion, too, "World Music" they call it, and it went well with the scene described above.)
You serve yourself at the Silk Road, but we found the service helpful nevertheless. "I gave service a [high rating] even though customers served themselves because the owner was more than willing to help with food descriptions, and even asked one customer at a large table to 'make way' for our group." When the place got hot and stuffy, the owner propped the front door open. It's the kind of place where they are genuinely glad to see you. Said Margaret: "The people at the counter [the proprietor and his mate/cook] are very nice." Added Margaret: "I think the tea is wonderful and comes in delicate lovely glasses." They offer teas and coffees and fruit juices (all available in lovely delicate glasses) and there is a water cooler too. They ask that you bus your table and the separate disposal trays are clearly marked.
The menu contained six appetizers ("light fare") and two entrees (one of which combined five of the appetizers into a "Sample Platter"). There were also several specials off the menu, including some thing called Scott Kugel's Pseudo-African Peanut Stew. Our reviewers were typically reticent, but one did note that "the [tossed] salad was exceptionally fresh and tasty, the greens were crisp and the simple dressing (lemon juice and oil?) accented the whole meal nicely." The Baba Ganouj was satisfactory and the unusual Hummus -- done Turkish-style, without tahini -- was "really good and garlicky." Dilip didn't care for the Chilled Carrot-Leek Salad but acknowledged that its texture worked well with the platter. He did not like the Bulghur Salad either (Bulghur, with vegetables, oil and lemon in a bed of lettuce) but I found it quite nice, in balance with the other offerings. My favorite was the Piyaz, chilled white beans with onion, cilantro, ginger, oil and vinegar: tasty, hearty, unusual but simple (sounds like more survey data from the State kids...)
The Sample Platter combination worked well and made a good entree. "I liked everything on the platter," commented one diner. The two other entrees we tried were also well-received. "The Turkish Beans & Rice were excellent!" gushed usually reserved Lauren. "I liked the mellow spices--this tasted like a "comfort food." (I am not sure what a 'comfort' food is, actually, but since she chose to note it, I chose to include it.) Perhaps comfort has something to do with utility: Lauren remarked also that "this meal was a real bargain too." The Peanut Stew -- creamy peanuts poured over rice -- Glenn found "very...peanutty. Good stuff, not spicy hot, but flavorful and quite filling." I assume Jeremy also enjoyed his stew, but for him it was less filling: with no mention of his entree specifically, he used "excellent" three times in his terse (fourteen word) review, and scarfed an order of Baba Ganouj once he'd polished off the entree (his only non-excellent opinion: the baba ganouj was "overpriced.")
The Silk Road is full of atmosphere and is conducive to conversation, and our conversation turned to Glenn Abbey's survey on student knowledge of vegetarianism. While anecdotal, not statistical, its import was disturbing and not unexpected: half (two of four) thought vegetable farming requires more land and energy than animal farming and one (out of four) thought meat feeds more people, at a lower production cost. Scariest of all: all (four college sophom) answered "false" to the statement "Meat is destructive to the environment." Glenn's class chore was to present a speech to influence these opinions. We talked a lot about it. I suggested he consult John Robbins classic Diet for a New America for solid, accessible documentation. We all know that proselytizing can be a touchy subject. But seriously, folks, at appropriate moments, inofficiously, we all should be prepared with the truth...
The Silk Road desserts are laid out under glass for your perusal. We tried the Walnut Baklava ("very good--nicely sweet and rich") and the Revani (semolina-lemon cake), which "went well with the house-blend coffee. It came covered in poppy seeds and a heavy syrup, similar to baklava." Dilip thought the Kadayif (shredded filo, rose water, syruppy stuff) was "good but too sweet." It was too sweet: my teeth still hurt. So the Silk Road Tea House is exactly what you would think: a funky Franklin Street hangout serving only vegetarian fare. A low-key, quiet place to get an inexpensive, healthy, refreshing meal, to be consumed at your leisure, over a book or magazine, if you wish. Or you can laze on a divan and sip Turkish tea or coffee. I went back a week or so after our outing and enjoyed everything again, including a Cashew Baklava (which was not as rich as it sounds, unfortunately). One danger about such college-town places, though: among the many diners reading and studying and writing was one fellow declaiming endlessly to his fellows, in a pungent voice, dropping names, shoveling verbiage, offering footnotes to his speech. I read The Independent and tried to tune him out, but the inane bombast penetrated: "modernism", Yeats' fascist flirtation, Heidegger, art and life and on and on. But that is life in Chapel Hill...