Qabuli chicken and seasoned rice.
Back in the early 1970s, Madison restaurants typically served staunchly Midwestern fare: sausages, steaks, fish fry. There were few other options. But by the end of the decade there was a beachhead for the ethnic cuisine that was to come: Hüsnü's, a Turkish restaurant, opened at 547 State St. in 1979. In time, Hüsnü's was joined on the same block by Buraka East African Cuisine and Kabul Restaurant, serving Afghani and Mediterranean food.
That modest building's great run ended last year, when it was demolished to make way for the Hub, a mixed-use development of apartments, retail space and parking. Construction is under way.
Kabul fortunately found new space upstairs in the former Gino's just across the street. The second-floor location is triple the restaurant's original size.
While the menu is not radically different, the new location creates a whole new experience. A bigger kitchen space allows for a more sophisticated menu, a modern and updated version of what Kabul had offered before. Photographs and paintings are set off by red and green light accents. The centerpiece of the new room is a bar that runs perpendicular to the windows overlooking State Street.
There are some terrific plates on the lunch menu, starting with the zucchini, potatoes, mushrooms and green peppers spooned over fluffy vegetarian couscous. Trout with cilantro chutney is only $8. Hummus is also a good deal and spiked with just enough garlic that it never overpowers the chickpea mash.
There's plenty to like before diners even get to the entrees. Dinners come with a side of soup or salad. Afghan soup with garbanzos, chicken, and kidney beans in a tomato base has a mellow, slow burn with mild heat in a delicate collision of flavors. A fresh salad is set off with a sublime yogurt-mint dressing.
Bread is served with a spicy roasted red pepper-garlic sauce. Other appetizers include sabrosas, deep-fried triangular pastries stuffed with potatoes and served with a mint-cucumber sauce. Baba ganoush is creamy, smooth and subtle. Large chunks of cucumbers distinguish the tabouli.
Entrees are mostly chicken- or lamb-based, and some come as curries, or served over couscous or chalow (white rice seasoned with cardamom).
There's also a nice selection of vegetarian dishes: fasuliya (green beans cooked with onions and split peas), bamya (okra with garlic in tandoori masala) and lubya (red beans with tomatoes, cumin, and coriander).
Sweet potato with lamb curry carries delicate undertones. Lamb and chicken kebabs with tomatoes, green peppers and onion fared the worst -- the lamb was dry and too tough, and the dish lacked any punch or finesse.
The baklava is very different from the Greek version, with only bits of crushed pistachios and not enough separation in the layering of phyllo dough. The result is a too-dense brick, but of course we ate it all anyway, with a hot cup of super-strong, super-sweet Turkish coffee.
The service is friendly and warm. On one occasion, the wine service was completely bollixed, however. A bottle of champagne never arrived, and the traditional wine service (pouring the host a taste, presenting the cork, waiting for approval) simply never materialized. That's okay -- this isn't fine dining -- but it's almost as easy to get it right as to get it wrong, so perhaps a bit of remedial education is in order here.
The room can be crowded even on weekday nights. The elevation over State Street provides an extra bit of magic. But the new Kabul doesn't seem sure about what it wants to be. Is this pan-Mediterranean food? Middle Eastern? Afghani? What to make of the Indian aspects?
The best approach may be to not worry about it. This menu is deep and wide, with some standout lamb preparations -- when in doubt, choose lamb -- and a mastery of the fundamental elements, from couscous to hummus to the yogurt-mint sauces. It's a sampler with no hard and fast rules, which actually feels liberating.
The old "University Inn" block restaurants were an anchor of diversity at the heart of UW-Madison, a refuge for thousands of students, professors, and city dwellers interested in something more exotic than a bacon cheeseburger and a beer. Its disappearance is part of the trend toward fast food and away from independently owned local restaurants on State Street, and it's a damned shame.
But at its new location, Kabul proves its resilience and ability to rise above the trend. Kabul's crowds prove that the restaurant has what the people want. Perhaps the pendulum will swing back towards family-owned restaurants that prepare food with love, and call their customers by name.