Madison’s options for Mediterranean cuisine have been limited in recent years, so the opening of Dubai Mediterranean Restaurant and Bar on State Street last spring has been a welcome addition to the area’s dining scene.
Dubai operates in what had been the Yellow Jersey bicycle shop until 2014, when former owner and Janesville native Andy Muzi decided to close the store after more than 40 years.
Since then, a number of restaurants have come and gone in the space at 419 State St. With reasonable prices, an attractive atmosphere and tasty fare, Dubai ought to find more success.
The restaurant features a shiny, bright interior with white tabletops and booths opposite a bar that runs almost the length of the long, narrow room.
Dubai serves Mediterranean classics such as shawarma, kebabs, hummus and falafel—most of which are served with a pita and/or saffron rice. The menu lists about five starters, five salads and five sandwiches with more main courses and a couple of desserts, while the bar offers cocktails, wine and bottled beer.
Dubai is run by Miar Maktabi, a native of Syria and a veteran chef who has worked in kitchens around Madison for the past decade. His recipes are homemade and welcoming in a comfort-food sort of way.
At least, that was our impression during a meal on a slow weeknight recently. We experienced good service and fine food, with just a few missteps. For example, our server brought a plate of vegetarian spreads but neglected to bring us individual plates on which to sample them.
The appetizer plate included hummus, babaganoush, mahamara and falafel ($10), and it was an excellent way to begin a meal. It arrived with slices of warm pita but needed some kind of tahini-based sauce for the falafel, which otherwise is too dry.
A mound of hummus exuded the rich flavor of ground chickpeas enhanced by spices and a pool of olive oil resting on top, while an outstanding babaganoush featured succulent eggplant with hints of garlic and lemon. The muhammara, a red pepper and walnut spread, was terrific on a warm pita, and we also liked an order of grape leaves ($7), which were stuffed with rice and served with a tasty garlic-yogurt sauce.
Vegetarians will enjoy the kitchen’s array of salads: fatoush ($8), a Middle Eastern dish that comes with vegetables and grilled flat bread; a classic Greek salad ($7) with romaine, feta and olives; and tabbouleh ($8), with its subtle flavors of fine parsley, tomato, bulgur and lemon. A side salad that comes with main dishes consists of chopped romaine, sliced tomato and onion with a spicy vinaigrette dressing.
For the most part, we were happy with the entrees—an order of kibbeh ($14) and a shawarma plate ($14).
Kibbeh, seasoned ground beef that is shaped into patties with bulgur, minced onion and Middle Eastern spices and then deep-fried, was artfully presented on a plate with a thin yogurt sauce. The patties were a tad dry (perhaps from too much time in the fryer) but were flavorful nonetheless.
A plate of shawarma—one of the Arabic world’s favorite street foods—featured thin slices of seasoned, marinated lamb taken from a rotating spit. It was served with a pita, saffron rice and hummus, and the meat itself was spicy and tasty, but too dry. It needed something such as a tzatziki sauce to soften it.
For dessert, you probably won’t find a better flavor combination than the kitchen’s Arabic coffee ($3)—served in a 2-ounce cup—and baklava ($3), the sweet pastry of honey and walnuts amid layers of filo dough.
Service at Dubai is good, though our friendly server appeared to be a bit inexperienced. The Middle Eastern restaurant definitely fills a void in the downtown dining scene, and with a few tweaks it could rival some of the city’s best Mediterranean eateries.
Bill Livick is a freelance writer who writes entertainment stories and Madison-area restaurant reviews for The Gazette.