I got only a brief look at the interior of Atlas House, a new restaurant on the lower end of International Drive. I was meeting someone for lunch, but when I entered the restaurant and found my friend already waiting I also found a family that included three unruly children running amok throughout the dining room. We wondered if perhaps they were related to the owners, given that the children were running behind counters and service stations without reprimand. In fact, there was no attempt to quiet the little dears at all, including allowing them to yell at each other from across the room. So we did not hesitate -- we got up and went outside to the unadorned and plain patio where there were several much quieter seats available.
It would not have been my choice, but it was the right one, something that was reinforced halfway through our meal when I could see that the family, including one I assumed to be the grandmother, was dancing in the middle of the dining room (there were no other guests, not surprisingly). Luckily there was the outdoor dining option or we might have just moved on. If we had, we wouldn’t have discovered the wonderful Uzbek cuisine of Atlas House.
What is Uzbek cuisine? you ask. It is the food of the Republic of Uzbekistan, one of the many -stan countries of Central Asia, including Afghani-, Turkmeni-, Kazakh- and Tajiki-.
Our server was a native of Uzbekistan, a country that few in the United States have heard of apart from former presidential candidate Herman Cain declaring in an interview that he did not know who was the president of “Ubeki-beki-beki-stan.” The young woman apologized for her English, which was flawless, and told us that the best comparison to the food of her country would be Turkish cuisine. I could see similarities, but there were enough things about it that were unique that it is worth recommending even over some of our finer Turkish restaurants.
The best of what I sampled was an eggplant roll appetizer. Though they contained no meat, the rolls were “meaty” in proportion, and delicious with fillings of cucumber and tomato, seasoned with sufficient garlic and sprinkled with brilliant bits of dill. The eggplant was sliced lengthwise and rolled and pinned with toothpicks. The flesh was tender but firm and was full of vibrant flavors.
My lunch guest chose the chuchvara, the dumplings that our server told us were a staple of an Uzbek meal. The dumplings, which resembled gnocchi in appearance, were filled with ground beef and chopped onions. It was not a very creative presentation -- the white dumplings on a white plate with a scoop of white sour cream in the middle, sprinkled with some dried herbs, the only bit of color -- but they were delicious.
I had the lamb rib, which was listed under the kababs section but which were actually just a couple of lamb chops. I had not been asked how I wanted the cooked, and indeed they were a bit too done -- almost dry -- but the flavors were still there and eating them was not a challenge. They were served on a bit of rice and accompanied by a small stack of onions.
When our server checked back to see how we were enjoying our lunch, she asked if we liked Uzbek food, and when we told her we did, she responded with genuine pleasure, a sort of national pride.
Atlas House resides in a strip mall that appears to be largely unoccupied. Indeed, the large empty space we could see as we dined still had dirt floors. It is not a restaurant that will enjoy walk-in traffic any time soon. And I fear that the International Drive address will scare a lot of locals off. But it can be reached without putting up with the usual tourist and convention traffic of upper I-Drive. So by all means, give it a try.
Atlas House is at 11901 International Drive, Orlando. It is open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Sunday. Entree prices range from $5.95 to $12.95. Here is a link to atlashouserestaurant.com. The phone number is 407-778-4816.