There were several surprises waiting for us at Palmyra. The first was the location. It was hard to tell if we'd ever been to that Middleton mall before, because it looked like it came out of the same box as most new malls. And then, despite rumors of a Moroccan flourish at Palmyra, and the shelves of tajine pots by the door, there was nothing Moroccan to eat. Instead the menu, like the mall, looked familiar, as if we had seen it before.
That's because, it turns out, we had. A sister kitchen to the venerable Shish Café, and by sister I mean conjoined twin, Palmyra shares an abbreviated menu with the Shish. Call it the Shish's greatest hits.
That's not a bad thing, though. In fact, the Shish is one of Madison's most consistently strong, under-the-radar restaurants. While too many other local Middle Eastern kitchens seem content to bounce some chewy kibbe balls and falafel across the table, the Shish turns those staples into serious food that reclaims a whole culinary legacy. Plus, my dad likes the Shish, and there is something oddly heartening about seeing (okay, perhaps imagining) the sort of unspoken understanding that exists between my Jewish dad and the Syrian owner of the Café.
So although I was disappointed by the lack of tajines, it was nice to find that there was a Shish Junior drawing lots of traffic on a recent rainy Wednesday night. And there were signs of hope. Though the tajines, we were told, were being tweaked after some initial problems, they will appear in the future, probably as weekend specials, along with more seasonal dishes.
In the meantime, all is okay. Like the Shish, Palmyra clearly doesn't intend to coast by on its looks alone, or really at all. The boxy dining room, painted a pistachio green, comes hung with some Syrian tchotchkes and unfortunate filmy swagged curtains that look like summer dresses hung up to dry. But it is cozy enough, especially in the rain, and most of the dishes we sampled were encouraging.
Among appetizers, many of which you can order sample-sized on two vegetarian combo plates, the mouhamara - a tapenade-like spread of fire-roasted, pureed peppers mixed with crushed walnuts and olive oil - was great smeared on warm pita. It flaunted a deep nutty flavor and a slight burn. Spinach borek could have used more feta cheese tossed into the pureed spinach and a thinner, more delicate dough, but the Syrian hot pocket still tasted like classic Middle Eastern comfort food. The standard-issue plate of falafel was improved by a decent tahini sauce, which can really elevate falafel and too often gets abandoned in other restaurants. Only the iggie, big fried patties of squash, green onions, cilantro and eggs, disappointed. The patties were greasy, and those green onions needed to be chopped down more.
Carnivores should wait for the entrees, especially the kebabs, a dish that's easy to dismiss and too often dismissible. But they have always been one of the Shish's signature dishes, and they are almost as good at Palmyra. The chicken rendition in particular is a wonderful thing, marinated in olive oil, downright juicy, and served over a basmati rice studded with roasted almonds for a needed bit of crunch.
The novel addition at Palmyra (actually the only dish we tasted that wasn't on the Shish menu) is a monkfish kebab that could become the restaurant's own claim to singular fame. While a few of the kebabs were dry, the juicier chunks of monkfish, flavored with rosemary, garlic and olive oil, were delicate and light.
In the end, there were only two jarring notes among main courses. The first was the lack of kibbe that night. If those are anything like the Shish's - and there's no reason to think they aren't - the baked balls of seasoned lamb, bulgur and pine nuts will be ethereal. The second is Palmyra's hummus with lamb. While there was plenty of the silky, pitch-perfect house hummus on the plate, the pieces of lamb topping it were tough and too gamey. I'm not a lamb lover in any case (it's the first thing I will give up for good, along with veal, if I ever go vegetarian), but this made a strong case for meatless meals.
All was almost forgiven, though, when dessert came out. Baklava is baklava, but the lemon pistachio bar at Palmyra is a subtle, citrusy, creamy square wrapped up in a pistachio crust. Served warm, it really does melt in your mouth, and even if the Shish perfected it, Palmyra does it full lemony justice.