Chef and restaurateur Laila Borokhim takes an improvisational approach to her profession. A Madison native with Jewish-Iranian ancestry, she opened Layla’s Persian Cuisine downtown in 2013 and later started a food cart that is a fixture at events around town.
Borokhim closed her Persian restaurant last year but continues to operate her food cart. She also opened another restaurant on South Park Street called Noosh, which specialized in Sephardic Jewish cuisine. She closed that business within a few months following disagreements with a landlord, and in November she opened Nuu Noosh in a small, funky space on Regent Street.
The new restaurant offers a handful of Middle Eastern dishes on a small menu that is handwritten on a chalkboard. Because she prepares and cooks all of the food herself, Borokhim said she likes to keep the operation simple.
She runs the restaurant with the help of a single employee, who takes orders at a front counter and serves diners in a homemade space that can seat, at most, about a dozen people.
We visited the restaurant recently and discovered the menu items listed on Noosh’s Facebook page were not what was offered on the chalkboard menu that night.
“The great thing about Old World food is that you can take anything you have on hand and make it into something delicious,” Borokhim said, when asked about the discrepancy.
In fact, when we arrived at the restaurant (which Borokhim created with used furniture and art pieces in what appears to be a small Quonset hut), our server was still writing the evening’s menu on the chalkboard.
That sums up the basic approach at the restaurant. And if you’re not someone who is willing to “go with the flow,” you probably ought to avoid this place.
On the other hand, if you’re open to improvising, you might be rewarded with some of Madison’s best Middle Eastern food.
On the night of our visit, we had a few basic choices for a main course (all priced at $10). One was malawach, a Yemenite-Jewish fried bread that resembles a thick pancake. It is traditionally topped with a hard-boiled egg and pickled vegetables, although a creative chef can make it with a variety of ingredients.
Another option was dumplings cooked in a borscht broth and served in a bowl over cabbage, onions, cheese and sour cream. Diners also could choose from three types of dumpling: potato pierogi, lamb pelmeni, or cheese and potato pierogi.
The third option was shakshuka—a North African dish featuring two poached eggs in a tomato-persimmon sauce, often spiced with cumin.
A friend and I hadn’t tried any of these dishes before and decided to check out two malawach recipes and some dumplings—all of which we found deliciously satisfying.
The malawach plates come with a salad, which on the night of our visit was similar to tabbouleh. My companion’s order included a generous portion of roasted eggplant, hard-boiled egg, pickled mango sauce and onion piled on thin layers of puff pastry that make up the malawach.
I opted for a meatier version, in which a lamb sausage is combined with roasted tomatoes, onions and bell peppers. I enjoyed it except for the rather tough, dry sausage.
The dumplings served as welcome comfort food on a cold, damp night. The mouth-melting cheese and potato pierogi were warm and tender over a savory combination of cabbage, onions, cheese, sour cream and the beet-colored broth.
Everything the restaurant offers is affordably priced, including several beverages such as beer and wine ($4) and tea and coffee ($2). Diners should note the restaurant takes personal checks and cash only (no debit or credit cards).
We enjoyed the quaint ambience of the dining room, which included a vintage Victrola turntable playing music that ranged from traditional Middle Eastern to American pop from the 1970s and ‘80s, as well as a mish-mash of decorative styles.
The building’s exterior is reminiscent of what you might expect to see in an off-the-track food shack in Cairo or Beirut. It could come as a surprise to some, but inside the space is warm and homemade, just like the food.
Table service at Noosh is personal and friendly, but quirky. Don’t expect anyone here to adhere to standard protocols, and don’t be surprised if the chef comes out from the kitchen to check on diners’ satisfaction.
Borokhim’s Nuu Noosh restaurant is a welcome oddity on the Madison dining scene. My friend referred to it as the “anti-Applebee’s.” It’s not for everyone, but it’s an eatery that I’ll return to repeatedly.
Bill Livick is a freelance writer who writes entertainment stories and Madison-area restaurant reviews for The Gazette.