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Choppy waters 

Manitou's new Mideast spot struggles with the basics

Finding dull hummus in a Mediterranean outfit is like plunking into lame salsa at a Mexican joint. As staple sides and easy indicators of overall kitchen prowess, they've got to be solid.

Nile Café's hummus is not only unusually runny, but also generally bland, lacking sufficient lemon, salt and garlic. If this is a lesser-known Egyptian rendition of the dish — owners Michael Ezzat and Jimmy Sabry both hail from that country — I can't count myself among its fans.

To me, the hummus suggests an identity crisis of sorts, the Nile wanting to provide all things to all diners (tourists and locals alike) without really executing many of those things well.

The trouble begins with the seating, which, aside from needing to be crumbed and wiped more attentively, better suits the after-hours hookah-smoking (the Nile offers 45 flavors) than comfortable dining. With knee-high tables placed between booth-style bench seats, you either hold your plate and plasticware in hand as if at a backyard barbecue, or uncomfortably lean over your plate while attempting to keep tzatziki from dripping onto your tie-dye. (This is Manitou, after all.)

It's like eating dinner at a coffee table from your couch. Personally, I'd rather sit on floor cushions, maybe to match the décor of framed Egyptian prints and hookahs lining high shelves.

Next, there's the menu, which runs the gamut from cheesecakes and pastries to Jell-O and smoothies alongside the Middle Eastern fare. There's even a reach-in cooler for ice cream sandwiches and candy bars for those on the move.

But on both of my visits, the Nile was out of baklava, the one sweet many of us crave after a pita. Thankfully, there was a redeeming rice pudding ($3.25). Also on a positive note, the eatery managed a respectable baba ghanoush, with a nice smoky eggplant flavor, and an excellent tahini (sesame paste) that helped liven grill meats desperate for it. The best way to sample all of these is with the Meze platter ($7.95), which comes with almost-warm, crisp pita chips for dipping.

The Arabica salad ($6.95) makes another decent starter, with generous feta chunks and a few standard dolmas (grape-leaf-wrapped rice logs) next to a strongly spiced, parsley-dominant tabouleh (bulgur grain salad).

It's with the mains that the Nile needs the most tightening. The veggie plate's ($8.95) grilled celery, squash and tri-color peppers tasted reheated and felt a bit rubbery. The accompanying rice, with odd strands of crisp rice-noodle garnish, was cold. The chicken shawarma ($6.95, $8.95 as a plate with rice and aforementioned dipping sauces) came bearing pink splotches of some sort of seasoning that I could neither get explained nor taste well.

I could taste spice in the beef shawarma and Kafta Kabob ($8.95, a trio of small, ground beef patties over rice) — both brought undertones of sweetness, as in, say, a very mild mincemeat pie. I happened to like the flavor, but it will surely turn some people off. Each time I asked about them, friendly but not-yet-knowledgeable servers deferred to the owners, who somewhat guardedly mentioned "spices."

Those same nonspecific ingredients also gave the falafel ($4.95), which rated average, a slightly different taste than popular Lebanese and Turkish styles.

Offering different Middle Eastern flavors could be welcomed, if done well. If the Nile doesn't want its restaurant business to go up in smoke with its hookah offerings, I'd suggest an overhaul of the recipe box.

matthew@csindy.com

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