Nile Restaurant has been serving savory Mediterranean dishes from its roomy location on the city’s west side since 2011.
That’s the same year one of Madison’s first Middle Eastern restaurants, Lulu’s, closed, and its head chef, Mohammad Hinnawi, decided to open his own place. He essentially transferred his knowledge and recipes from Lulu’s to Nile, along with most of its customers.
Nile’s classic Middle Eastern food is homemade, from fresh pita and falafel to more complex recipes such as kibbe and musakka with bechamel. Vegetarians, in particular, have a lot to choose from in this culinary tradition—spinach pie, stuffed green peppers, Egyptian cannelloni and more—but just about everything at Nile Restaurant hits the mark.
Our party of six visited the Odana Road eatery on a Friday night when the dining room was moderately busy. I hadn’t dined there since 2011, and I came away with the impression Nile’s food is solid, if not spectacular.
With entrees in the $15-$20 range and generous portions, the kitchen consistently puts out good plates of food. But it’s not the kind of place you just can’t wait to return to.
The restaurant has a relaxed atmosphere, which also applies to its service—friendly but not especially concerned with timing or details (like asking about beverages before food orders).
Nile’s somewhat ornate dining room has red tablecloths under glass, Oriental rugs, a scarlet-and-gold palette of prints and other wall art. The restaurant’s designers did a nice job of transforming its suburban strip-mall setting into something that feels a bit more inviting.
Nile’s menu offers 10 appetizers, a couple of different types of lentil soups and six salads along with seafood entrees, house specials (couscous, shawirma and stews), four plates “from the grill,” eight vegetarian options and a bunch of combination platters. Its list of appetizers includes some tasty fare for noncarnivores, such as a plate of feta cheese and olives ($5.95) or baba ghanouj ($5.95)—broiled and pureed eggplant with lemon, garlic, yogurt and tahini.
The falafel plate ($5.95) also is an excellent starter: crunchy, deep-fried balls of ground garbanzo beans share a plate with hummus, tahini sauce and wonderful house-made pita that is pillowy in the center and slightly charred around the edges. The delicious falafel have crispy exteriors and dense, nutty interiors seasoned with garlic, cumin, coriander and cayenne.
A group of childhood friends from Janesville included city native Matt Mills, who described his wife Deb’s lamb shish kabob ($16.95) as “a generous portion, and tender as a mother’s love.” The plate included marinated lamb grilled with green pepper and onion, rice and pita.
Each dinner included a light salad of chopped lettuce, tomato, onion and cucumber with lemony vinaigrette dressing.
Mills liked the kibbe ($15.95)—seasoned beef and bulgur layered with sautéed ground beef, onions and pine nuts, all baked and served with tabouli (bulgur, fresh parsley and mint) and yogurt sauce. (The dish is reminiscent of the meatloaf our mothers served us as children, without such tasty extras as pine nuts, bulgur, parsley and mint.)
A plate of lamb couscous ($15.95) was pure comfort food. It also featured tender chunks of meat that had been simmered in tomato sauce with vegetables (carrots, onions, green pepper) and semolina, in what almost amounts to a stew. An order of shrimp kabob ($16.95) included assorted vegetables and rice with a skewer of marinated jumbo gulf shrimp that was grilled to perfection. Like most dishes, it comes with the kitchen’s rich, creamy hummus.
Much of Nile’s main courses are sort of a variation on a theme. For example, shish taouk ($16.95) grills marinated chicken breast kabob-style with vegetables, which arrive on a plate with rice and hummus. A plate of beef shawirma ($15.95) also delivered rice and hummus along with spicy beef that is marinated and broiled. Friends rated those dishes as “good enough” and “outstanding,” respectively.
For dessert, there is baklava and baked rice pudding, but after such generous portions, our group passed on them.
Whether you’re looking for lunch or dinner, Nile Restaurant is one of Madison’s better Middle Eastern establishments. It’s a place where fine food is served in a relaxed environment, and fans of Mediterranean cuisine are not likely to be disappointed.