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Shish Cafe

Update 7/9/12: Shish Cafe is moving.

In a word: This cafe is the shish.

The specs: #0594  
Address, hours & details via Isthmus; reviews at Trip Advisor, Eating the World, Insider Pages, Yelp, 77 Square, TDPF; listing at Eat Drink Madisonmenu on menupix, Shish Cafe Incorporated on Urbanspoon

Latest Shish Cafe news and reviews

Allen, JM, Liz, and Nichole ate the Shish Feast for four with a hot tea, an iced tea, and a lemonade.
The bill was $100, or $25/person, plus tip.
Allen gave Shish Cafe an A+; Liz gave Shish Cafe an A; JM and Nichole gave Shish Cafe an A- (see our grading rubric).

There were moments in our wait for a Friday-night dinner table at nondescript Shish Cafe when we thought Allen would go from merely miming to actually gnawing off his own arm. It had been the end of a long day of travel and anticipation for the next day's exciting bike ride, so it was frustrating to stand in the packed foyer and peek into the fluorescent-lit dining room to see many empty tables, and to be too naive to realize we could have perched at the short, dim bar while we waited. But it gave us the chance to chat with fellow diners who unanimously recommended the lamb dishes. And once the waves of food that are the Shish Feast for Four crashed over us, all petty gripes were forgotten.

Feast tray

The feast for four is made up of "shish kabob of lamb and chicken, shish kafta, lamb chops, chicken shawarma, basmati rice, hummus, baba ghanouj, mouhamara, falafel, grape leaves, tabouli, and tahini sauce." We'd be hard pressed to choose any better items on our own, observed Allen, all his gnawing now directed at the succulent meats before us. But let's back up for a moment.

Before the feast, which arrived fast once we ordered, was a bread basket of puffy, hollow disks of bread with good oil and a shaker of spice mix that included garlic, cumin, and oregano. Liz and Nichole's mint teas were both delicious, hot or iced. JM's lemonade was an unusually warm color and we think it might have been spiked with the fresh-squeezed orange juice that can be ordered by the glass.

BreadTea

Every single item in the feast was worth ordering again, and the quantity was easily enough for six meals. Permit us to tackle it in our customary fashion.

Baba ghanouj is really a wonderful way to eat eggplant, and this recipe was far above average, rich and complex without any bitterness. Heck, even JM ate it.

Basmati rice lay under each of the meat plates. Every grain was separate and toothsome, and the plates were garnished with toasted slivered almonds, fresh parsley, sumac and/or other touches such that Nichole commented in a state of inarticulate bliss that "everything has so many ingredients."

Chicken shawarma shared the plate with shish kafta, we think, and the grilled morsels of white meat were good.

Chicken shish kabob was basically more of the same - larger pieces of moist, white meat chicken hot off the grill.  These nuggets were substantial and delicious.

The falafel were crunchy ovals of coarsely ground, darkly fried chickpea flour amply spiked with parsley and a little onion.

Grape leaves stuffed with rice were the least favored item with our group, but each loose roll had a tangy green olive overtone and the accompanying yogurt dip was versatile; we put it on everything until it was gone.

The hummus was like a paragraph of ever-more-complex sentences: in each taste, first came the clear, simple notes of plain sesame oil and lemon juice, then the more full-bodied tahini, and finally the point, chickpeas with just an allusion to garlic that didn't linger. We'd be happy to have that paragraph lead off any assay of Mediterranean food.

Lamb chops. Holy grilled medium rare deliciousness. We wondered if lamb is always this surprising and pleasing because it's something we don't eat very often. We suspect it's more that Shish Cafe's is one of their strengths, as it was what our fellow waiting diners recommended.

Likewise the lamb shish kabob, cubed and perfectly seasoned, was tender and delicious.

Mouhamara, where have you been all our lives? The red pepper and walnut spread spiked with pomegranate molasses was silky and seductive.

The shish kafta was ground lamb, perfectly seasoned and supplemented with onion, molded, and grilled, and probably our favorite of all the feast items. 

Tabouli was an explosion of fresh parsley and mint, light on the bulgur, liberally spiked with meaty tomatoes, that served with grilled bell peppers and onions as a balancing vegetable side dish.

The tahini sauce here was on the thin side, a practical concern only because we wanted more, more, more of its sesame flavor on anything and everything.

FeastShish kabob plate

Fan artOh Shish Cafe. We've gone past your storefront probably hundreds of times, enough to recognize and rejoice that you've expanded into the part of your building that used to be the Cat's Agenda. Allen favorited you on Urbanspoon before the check even arrived. We are so glad we finally went inside.

Comments

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Awesome! Can't wait to try this place out.

What a great review! Shish is definitely one of my favorite Middle Eastern restaurants in Madison.

Love this place!!

Yum, mouhamara. Not that you will (because it's in the Ns!) but try the red pepper spread that's part of the Middle Eastern snack plate. It's totally addictive. :-)

That lamb sounds TDF. I have heard great things about Shish Cafe; this may push me over the edge to actually GO already.

Oops! I meant to say the Middle Eastern snack plate ...

... at Natt Spil.

You could've just guessed which restaurant I meant, though, right? :-)

I must have the worst luck with that place. I've heard over and over again how awesome it is, and every time I go (which has been three times now) something rather unpleasant happens to my food. I ordered a fish special there once that was burnt on the outside but still frozen on the inside (which is not the expected outcome for pan-grilled halibut), I had a lamb kabob that was overcooked to near charcoal, and a chicken dish that was raw in spots.

It's like it all would've been just fabulous...if my food had been cooked for the appropriate amount of time.

Maybe I'll give it another go sometime.

A vegetarian friend once declared that the Vegetarian Sampler Platter for Two is "the best vegetarian meal in the city". I can get behind that statement except to say that it should really be called a vegetarian feast for FOUR; the leftovers lasted through at least one more meal.

Also, try the Arabic coffee. It is rich and dark, powerfully enhanced by but not overpowered by cardamom, and it came in a pleasingly well-used, specialty coffee pot; it's a great way to end a meal.

It's been a long time since my last visit, but I have always had a great meal there. I was drooling as I read this review!

Yeah, another +1 for Shish Cafe; this was one of the first places I ate at, after moving here, and I have yet to have a bad experience.

In re: the waiting-in-the-foyer thing, I've found that I'd much prefer to be kept waiting *before* I get a seat than after. Too many times I've been in a restaurant where they've been understaffed for whatever reason, decided to seat the whole place anyway, and then end up taking hours to actually get you an order, or (in one unfortunately-memorable case) even an appetizer. If you don't have the staff capacity, don't seat the whole dining room! I wish more places would do that.

(Not that I'm saying that's what was happening here; I know that Shish Cafe does take reservations and many tables seem to be reserved for those, when I've been there in the past, so I'd guess that that's more likely.)

I'm so glad you liked this place. My husband and I live nearby, and it's a favorite of ours for Saturday lunch. The Mouhamara is the best I've had in town, and the falafel sandwich is big enough for two.

Shish is one of my favorites for the flavors but we end up shying away because they aren't entirely consistent. I also find them a slight bit pricey for the fact that a lot of the dishes are 60% rice.

The looming owner stalking about the dining room can be a little creepy, too.

I go to Shish Cafe probably 2-3x per month, and the food has been excellent every single time. My only complaint is the wait/service time. Often slow on one or both fronts.
Last weekend my husband and I had a craving for Shish Cafe after having been on vacation for a while...but, being too tired to wait it out, we smartly called ahead and placed a carry out order. I'm convinced that the quantity of food I got in my takeout was MORE than what I get when I'm there! This is certainly the way to go, especially since I've had several experiences where the wait/service was a bit lengthy. However, be warned, there can even be a decent wait time for the carryout...30 minutes was my wait at prime time on a Saturday (I once tried to get carryout on a Friday night and was told 1 hr! We passed - we were starving). Anyway, I'll be doing this more frequently!

Oh, and thanks for the link back to my blog!

Love the food here - but wait times can be really long. Last time we went there, we waited over an hour for our food (granted, we were a large party - 8 people, I think - and it was a Friday night, but still....)

Great food. We ate the fish sampler, which was humongous, and the fish was perfectly charred, with the rice absorbing much of the fish flavor. Too many accompaniments to even list here, but they were all terrific. If only this place was downtown...

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