Thank god Lombardino's is still standing. It's hard to say how I would get through the summer without that sweet pea salad and the seafood linguini. But the redevelopment of Old University Avenue suggested something was going to have to give, and it turned out to be Lulu's, which means University Heights is pretty much in full-blown mourning. That's because Lulu's was one of the first Middle Eastern restaurants in town, at a time when ethnic restaurants still read as something exotic. While it never changed much, it did what it did reliably and consistently. And by the time it shut down it felt like a little landmark, a neighborhood institution.
The mourning, in any case, will be short-lived. The neighborhood will just have to drive a little further west, now that Lulu's chef Mohammad Hinnawi and some of his colleagues have quickly opened the Nile in a strip mall on Odana Road. Are things the same? Not exactly. While Lulu's was a dark, cavernous place, the Nile is one big suburban box of a room, and it comes bursting out at you with an oddly manic red and gold palette, some baroque damask wallpaper in one corner, a lot of prints and things hanging on the walls (think palm trees), and a sea of industrial carpeting.
The food, though, tastes pretty much the same, and for old fans that will be good news. What is best? The pita, for one. While it too often gets reduced to a chewy triangle of refrigerated dough, that's not the case here; the Nile's pita is almost pillowy and looks and tastes freshly made, its edges artisanal and ragged. The falafel is fine; the shell of the ball is as crunchy as a hushpuppy on the outside, and the interior has a dense nutty bite to it. The Egyptian lentil soup is a bit tepid but qualifies as good pita dipping. The chicken couscous is soothing, the simmered vegetables sweetening the semolina and making for a hearty mash. The kibbee is textbook kibbee, the sautéed ground beef, onions and pine nuts playing perfectly well together. The night's special of lamb chops was meaty and tender.
Satisfying fans and enticing a new market are different things, though, and there is one big caveat here. What we used to consider ethnic food in the '80s is really mainstream and omnipresent now, as all-American as anything else. And that means it needs to be as seriously sourced and creatively tweaked as any other cuisine, especially now that the competition is so much keener.
The relocation could have been Lulu's chance to refresh and reinvent itself, but it hasn't taken that leap of faith. At least not yet. In fact, too much of the food seems redundant and vaguely passé. Take that falafel. It's good, but it could be a lot more, even dressed up a bit with some grilled eggplant, tahini sauce (ours never came) and marinated vegetables. The kitchen's Nile Chicken, served in a glutinous lemon sauce that's as thick as a Kraft dinner, needs updating. The shawarma just needs rethinking; the leathery, gamey slices of broiled beef are hard to chew. The grape leaves are sodden, and the undersized, indifferent lamb kebobs, served with cold, half-cooked rice, can't rival the much meatier, fully flavored signature dish at the Shish Cafe on University.
That sounds like a lot to consider - but given the kitchen's experience, these should be fairly easy fixes, and the sort of reinvigoration that the cooks themselves, probably bored by now, would enjoy. The payoff, in any case, should be worth it. It's nice to be a fond memory that delivers on the classics. But it's more satisfying to be the face of a new decade and capture a fresh kind of allegiance.