After a 10-month exile, Kabul is enjoying a rebirth of sorts in its new setting, with devoted customers flocking to the re-opened State Street restaurant and no doubt realizing how much they missed it.

The Afghan-Mediterranean restaurant had been a State Street favorite for 25 years before having to close last October. Kabul was forced from its comfortable home on the 500 block for an enormous redevelopment project.

It reopened Aug. 16 in a semi-covert, second-floor location above what used to be Gino’s and is now IT’SUGAR, a national candy store chain.

We were glad to find it open on the evening of Labor Day, and from the looks of it, so was everybody else in town. The sidewalk patio was full, and there were only a few empty tables upstairs. The staff seemed a bit overworked and frenzied, but our waiter remained pleasant and helpful.

Waitresses wear aprons with the Kabul logo. Waiters sport Kabul T-shirts with the emblem on the back and “Wisghanistan” on the front. Hey, if Sconnie can be a thing, why not Wisghanistan?

The space is pleasing, but it somehow lacks the cozy, homespun atmosphere of the old location with its familiar floral-print booths.

What is more pleasing — and surprising — is that owner Hamed Zafari, who now runs the business started by his father Ghafoor, has kept prices so reasonable.

The appetizers were not only inexpensive, but also outrageously good. The ashak ($5), scallion-filled steamed dumplings topped with yogurt and, in our case, meat and vegetable sauce (there is also a meatless option), were like flat, tender, triangular ravioli. The meat sauce had some kick, and dried mint only enhanced the flavor.

Equally stunning was the burani ($5.25), perfectly sautéed eggplant slices served with the same yogurt, meat and vegetable sauce, and mint on top. (It’s also available without meat.) A friend who doesn’t care much for eggplant helped himself to seconds.

The only dish that disappointed was the ginger chicken ($12.25), an entree that was over-seasoned in a way that made it an unappealing muddle. Aside from the rough curry flavor, everything worked: the chunks of chicken breast, the artichoke hearts, the onions and the bits of green pepper.

Better was the koftachalow ($10.50), five big, dense, meatballs with a tomato sauce that drew from onions, herbs and — as the menu noted — yellow split-peas. I only wished there had been more sauce to enhance both the rice and the ground beef.

Another thing to appreciate about Kabul is that all entrees are served with the seductive Afghani-style mashawa soup, and squares of fresh homemade flatbread.

The signature tomato-based soup is like nothing else, with its small pieces of chicken and lamb, as well as garbanzos, kidney beans, and a swirl of yogurt on top. It was great to be reunited with this familiar combination of spices.

I’m not sure why anyone would get the dinner salad instead, but it is the other choice. It’s got leaf lettuce that could have been cut better, along with red cabbage, carrot, tomato with an understated green yogurt dressing.

Kabul’s food is healthy enough that indulging in dessert feels right, especially if you order the firni ($4), a delightful rice pudding made with milk, cardamom and rosewater with ground pistachios on top.

“This gets better the more you eat it,” said a companion.

Zafari worries about his second-floor location and wonders what will happen in the colder months when the restaurant’s outdoor seating no longer signals to passersby that the restaurant is above.

Time will tell, but to keep positive, Zafari need only look at Sunroom Cafe and, before that, Sunprint, and how successful those business have been in a second- floor State Street location for a combined 30 years.

Meanwhile, regulars are appreciating Kabul anew after its “Exile on State Street.” The other two ethnic restaurants — Buraka and Husnu’s — that were displaced by the massive $70 million, 12-story, mixed-use, student-oriented development, The Hub at Madison, have sadly not resurfaced yet.

Kabul is a hub onto itself. A hub on State Street for exceptional food and fair prices, and the only place in town to appreciate Wisghanistan.


Wisconsin State Journal food writer Samara Kalk Derby brings you the latest news on the Madison area's eclectic restaurant scene.