Try a variety of meats in the kebab combo.
The new Palmyra Mediterranean Grill on State Street serves lots of Middle Eastern basics, with a backlit photo menu hoisted high (too high, for those straining to see dish details) over a large ordering counter. Is it hard to believe this boxy space used to be a bike shop, not a restaurant? It's not hard at all. It's hard to believe it's not in a mall food court somewhere, though if you discovered it in a shopping mall, it would be a fortunate find.
Palmyra is geared to offering food for campus dwellers. It is not a date-night restaurant, like the on-hiatus Husnu's and the soon-to-reopen Kabul, two nearby Mediterranean favorites displaced by construction in the 500 block of State Street. Its only current campus competition for similar cuisine is Mediterranean Cafe, the charming, homey luncheonette that seems to have stepped directly out of a 1980s-era write-up from an Arthur Frommer's "Exotic Locale on $20 a Day" guidebook. (Inexpensive. And often incredible.)
Palmyra illustrates the reality of 2014, that State Street is becoming a food court for UW-Madison students. The dining area is painted a cheerful Aegean blue and sports large murals of ancient ruins, but it is still a dispiriting space; the best you can hope for is lively dining companions, or weather good enough to warrant eating on the sidewalk patio. That backlit menu offers no details on the dishes other than what you can discern from the photos, and a question to the staff ("What's in the kebab combo?") elicited a confused look, a quick consult with someone in the kitchen, and then a rushed explanation that was hard to catch. A printed menu posted at eye level would be much appreciated.
So let's start with the kebab combo, the most expensive item at $15. It includes samples of most of the available grilled meats: beef, lamb, chicken, chicken kefta and beef kefta. It's a ridiculous amount of meat for one person; like many of Palmyra's plates, it's better shared. The beef kefta, a highly spiced ground beef meatball, is good, but the chicken kefta, spicy ground chicken shaped in this case like a torpedo, is better. The straight-up grilled chicken (a plane of breast meat, scored) had a flabby texture and flavor that brought to mind the words "saline injection," while the lamb was lean but still somewhat chewy.
Skip the combo and head for the beef kebab, featuring chunks of rich, deeply seasoned grilled beef, or the chicken kefta. Plates come with a small salad (tomato, onion, cucumber and a yogurt-based dressing), yellow rice, a generous pool of hummus and pita bread.
The hummus, which accompanies most dinners but is also available on its own, is good enough to make you rethink buying Sabra. It can vary -- on one visit it was a thick, tartly lemony, in-your-face hummus; on another, creamier and nuttier -- but either way, it's one of Palmyra's strong offerings. The baba ghanoush and the mhammara are not bad either. The mhammara, a red pepper dip, is sweet, minty, almost relishy, rather than spicy.
There are a number of meze-type dishes like these on the menu that would be perfect for sharing, like the hummus with grilled chicken (a huge plate of this); the lemony tabouli (heavy on the parsley, light on the bulgur, and with rather tasty tomatoes for this time of year); and the aforementioned dips. There's a catch, though -- the dull, thin, dry pita. A thin flatbread can be authentic in Middle Eastern cuisines (Palmyra's owners are Syrian), but it needs to be fresh. On repeat visits I always found the pita to be exactly the same -- not fresh, not stale, but in that limbo in between.
The most disappointing dish was the potato curry, which was more like cumin fried potatoes.
Palmyra also serves shawarma (beef and chicken), grilled fish, hamburgers (from halal meat), kibbeh, fattoush and many of the abovementioned dishes as sandwiches.
Yes, if Palmyra was in a mall food court, I'd head right for its counter. If I wanted Mediterranean food on State and Mediterranean Cafe had closed for the day, I'd head for Palmyra. If Med Cafe was open, though...I'd wait in line there every time (and I am not a big fan of waiting in line).
What's missing from Palmyra are some of the little touches. When I asked if they had tea, for instance -- thinking of the wonderful cardamom-inflected tea that used to be served at King of Falafel -- the fellow behind the counter nodded his head toward the soda machine, which has a spout for Lipton "Brisk." No, I mean real tea, I said. He shook his head no.
So order carefully, and you'll find decent Middle Eastern dishes and some good kebabs served in a no-nonsense dining room with prices friendly to students. And avoid the potato curry.