Tucked at the far end of West Gilman Street between the Amsterdam and Lava Lounge, King of Falafel can easily go unnoticed by the unassuming Madisonian. Its inconspicuous location adds a mystifying flair to the Arabic restaurant, which opened its doors in late 2003 under the proprietorship of Meshel Aldaee. Aldaee emigrated from Kuwait in 1998, and King of Falafel represents his first venture into the restaurant business. He brings traditional Middle Eastern and Mediterranean fare to Madison, including Lebanese, Moroccan and Egyptian-inspired recipes. The King of Falafel experience begins inauspiciously with a conventional Mediterranean grocery and takeout area upon arrival through the Gorham Street entrance. Although traditional Arabic delicacies such as grape leaves, stuffed eggplant and halva comprise the grocery's selection, the lack of cultural decor offers the aura of a typical Americanized takeout. Upon being seated in the dining hall area, however, the patron is swept away from the familiar Madison grocery on a magic carpet to the sights, sounds and culinary tastes of the Middle East. Traditional Kuwaiti ornaments that adorn the spotless, spacious and perfectly dimmed dining area, along with the Arabic harmonies flowing through the room like the ceiling's tapestry, generates the illusion that the patron is feasting halfway across the world. King of Falafel's traditional Arabic dishes, however, are what consummate this authentic dining experience. The expansive menu offers choices for even the finicky palate, which are best sampled through the varying combination platters. With service fit for a king, there is no better choice than the King's Combo ($32 for two people), which includes an assortment of dips, appetizers, meats, and choice of soup or salad. The wait staff does not hesitate to offer refills of the complimentary cardamom tea, which proves to be an excellent palate cleanser between each of the three courses. The first course offers a selection of either lentil soup or a Fatoosh salad. Patrons are advised to select the former, which offers a velvety, balanced purée of red lentils, onions and spices. The romaine lettuce, tomato, cucumber and radish of the Fatoosh salad are notably crisp and fresh. However, the excessive use of salt masks the exciting flavor of the salad dressing, which includes parsley, mint, sumac, olive oil and lemon juice. A dizzying array of ten Arabic delights, along with pita bread, comprises the second course. The appetizers and dips introduce the patron to well accented, but not overwhelming exotic spices, for which Aldaee takes great pride. The owner achieves this balance by importing select spice seeds from Chicago and hand crushing them on premises. Among the most savory dishes of the course are the hummus, which rivals any in Madison, m'hamara, kibee balls and stuffed grape leaves. A favorite among customers, m'hamara is a unique dip of blended roasted red peppers that provide excellent texture and consistency but has a rather sweet aftertaste. The most flavorful selection of the course is the fried kibee balls, a savory purée of bulgur and beef stuffed with pine nuts, minced meat and onions. Ironically, one of the least memorable dishes is the Egyptian falafel for which this restaurant is named, a blend of ground chickpeas, fava beans, vegetables and spices that offered an un-crisp, bland taste. In addition, the beef sambosia, a beef-filled pastry, offered little flavor. All told, the appetizers offer a wide selection of savory flavors enhanced by spices unique to Middle Eastern cuisine. The final and most satisfying course of the meal is the wonderfully spiced and well marinated meats, which include kefta kebob, shish taouk, lamb kebob and lamb shawarma, served over a bed of saffron rice. Aldaee marinates all his meats overnight to provide a moist, tender and non-leathery texture. Marinated with a wonderful blend of seasoning, the shish taouk offers two succulent pieces of moist chicken breast, among the best the city has to offer at this price level. The clove-enhanced lamb shawarma and lamb kebob provide a flavor unlike any in Madison and are the highlight of the king's combo. Perhaps the most appealing aspect of King of Falafel is its friendly pricing. All appetizers range from $2.95–6.95 and entrees from $8.95–11.95. Busy students looking for a quick eat will find King of Falafel's pita sandwiches equally affordable — for just $3.95 to $5.95, the meal on the go comes with French fries and tahini. When a restaurant owner takes pride in his recipes, one can taste his passion in the food, and Aldaee is no exception. His enthusiasm for distinct flavors enjoyed in an authentic setting makes King of Falafel not just a restaurant, but an experience not to be missed. We give King of Falafel two discriminating palates up! King of Falafel is located at 453 W. Gilman St.