January 25, 2006

Pita Delites is back after two years, and it’s upped the ante

I know I should be embarrassed to say it, but count me among those who are, well, delighted that Pita Delites has reopened after a two-year hiatus. I know that during its earlier 10-year run (first in a little spot on Barret, and later on Winter Avenue, in the site now occupied by the Monkey Wrench), some people found the place a bit confusing; the service, mostly warm and familial, could sometimes be as inscrutable as an Ionesco script founded on the essential truth of Murphy’s Law: “If anything can go wrong, it will.”

 

But never mind all that. For my money, Pita Delites has always turned out some of the best baba ganoush and hummus in the city. For years, I’d pop in on a Saturday morning, buy a pint of each and a package of pita bread, and return home ready for anything: snowstorms, presidential motorcades, telemarketing calls from long distance providers — even visits from long lost relatives.

 

So I was a bit worried when I first set foot in the new spot. In its earlier incarnations, Pita Delites was a pleasantly messy hybrid of ethnic grocery and restaurant. Glass cases displayed knickknacks and sheets of baklava. Cold cases contained all kinds of exotic goodies.

 

The new location (formerly the home of Papillon’s) has none of that. Instead of coolers and knickknacks, I saw hardwood floors, wooden tabletops, a brightly whitewashed ceiling and a couple of bay windows give the place a fine glow. A few photographs here and there evoke Middle Eastern scenes. So I immediately started fretting that my pints of baba and hummus were things of the past.

 

Less bothersome was the absence of the old Pita Delites buffet. I understand the allure. It was speedy, cheap and filling. But those things only count when freshness, flavor and interesting textures are immaterial. Which is to say, never. As for speed, on a couple of recent visits, table service was enthusiastic and quick enough.

 

Perhaps I’m easily swayed, but I like it when I ask for a menu substitution and the server says, “We can accommodate just about any request.” And though I’m not credulous enough to believe it, I rather like it when a wide-eyed server has enough faith in the chef to say, “He’s amazing. He can do anything in the kitchen.”

 

And Pita Delites does many things admirably. My wife Mary never fails to order the lentil soup ($3.99). It’s simple enough: a warm, beige of lentils, onions and potatoes. But it cozies up to you on a cold night with hints of garlic and the barest touch of something tangy — maybe vinegar or lemon.

 

One night the special was lamb ($10.99), first roasted, then pulled into tender chunks, served with rice and gently seasoned rice and carrots. A falafel appetizer ($5.99 for 10; $3 for five) brought pebbly spheres of deep-fried chickpeas, a bit smaller than golf balls, and way more fun to eat — with an outer crust that splintered against my teeth to reveal a moist, finely ground interior. Dipped in a light tzatziki sauce of cucumber and yogurt, this is the kind of dish that could convert even the most Americanized youngster into a fan of ethnic food.

 

The shawarma isn’t so successful. It’s essentially street food, after all, and as such requires meticulous engineering and craft. The Pita Delites version is ample enough, and flavorful: It’s filled with strips of marinated grilled beef (or chicken), oodles of grilled onions, the tang of pickled vegetables and the cooling taste of tzatziki (or, if one prefers, tahini sauce, or if you just have to have it, mayo or Dijon mustard). The flavors were without flaw.

 

But if you try to eat this sandwich on the street, you’ll soon be well beloved by every dog in the neighborhood. The toasted pita, thick though it was, fell apart almost as soon as I lifted it from the plate. Yes, it is possible to build this sandwich so that it can be eaten by hand (head downtown and try the version at Safier, for instance). And just lately, after many squeamish years during which I studiously avoided actually touching my food, I’ve started to take a childlike pleasure in picking up a sandwich with my fingers. Let’s face it: It’s just more fun. So it was with crestfallen knife and fork (well, not so very crestfallen, really) that I finished my sandwich. (Shawarma can be had as a sandwich, filled with chicken or beef; as a lunch combo, accompanied by rice or a salad; or as a dinner combo, accompanied by rice and a salad; prices for the various combinations range from $5.49 to $8.99 — all very modest, given the generosity of the portions.) Gyros are also available, as are vegetarian options featuring rice, lentils and vegetables, a vegetable moussaka ($8.99), a feta sandwich on pita. Not to mention chicken sumac ($9.99), baklava for dessert and rich Turkish coffee with a hint of cardamom.

 

And, of course, there’s hummus and baba ganoush. And yes, on request the kitchen will be happy to pack up a pint of baba or hummus — heck, they’ll even sell you a package of pita bread to take home with you.

 

Pita Delites is at 1616 Grinstead Drive. Closing times may vary, depending on traffic, but in general, hours are: Sunday 12-8 p.m.; Monday-Thursday 11 a.m.-8:30 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 11 a.m.-10 p.m. The dining area is accessible for people using wheelchairs, but a narrow corridor and small door will make restrooms nearly impossible to reach. Major credit cards are accepted. Call 569-1122 for info.