Hungry for hummus? Craving kebabs? Fancy a little falafel? You can find satisfaction at three new Middle Eastern restaurants, a diverse trio ranging from a fine dining establishment to a counter service pita sandwich shop.
Sitti (137 S. Wilmington St.; 239-4070; www.sitti-raleigh.com), which opened last week in downtown Raleigh, is a joint venture between the Saleh family, owners of the area's Neomonde restaurants, and downtown developer Greg Hatem. Envisioned by the partners as a tribute to their common Lebanese culture, Sitti is by far the most ambitious Middle Eastern restaurant ever to open in the Triangle.
The partners hired Ghassan Jarrouj, former chef to the U.S. ambassador to Lebanon, to translate their family recipes into an extensive menu of mezze, entrees and house-baked flatbreads. In addition to kebabs, shawarma and other familiar Lebanese fare, the offering includes a number of delicacies such as makanek (Lebanese sausage), lamb and baby okra stew, and shish barak (meat dumplings cooked with yogurt and mint sauce).
Sitti's antique art deco bar is the first in the state to pour arak, the distinctive anise-flavored liquor that's a popular mezze companion in Lebanon. The restaurant also offers a selection of Lebanese wines and beers.
For all its culinary distinctions, Sitti is by no means a stuffy place. Focal point of the casually elegant dining room is the communal dining table, which the owners had made from imported Lebanese cedar. The communal table experience evokes the large mealtime gatherings of family and friends that are a foundation of Lebanese tradition.
And, as the owners fondly note, at the center of those gatherings is the grandmother -- or, as she is affectionately called in Lebanon, "sitti."
The focus at Aladdin's Eatery (6325-73 Falls of Neuse Road; 878-7690; aladdinseatery.com), which opened Oct. 31 in North Raleigh, is on fresh and healthy fare. Virtually everything, from hummus to len-chili (half lentil soup, half vegetarian chili), is homemade. Hormone-free chicken is featured in dishes ranging from sambusek (Middle Eastern chargrilled chicken curry) to shawarma. Beef and lamb for kebabs and entrees are fresh, not frozen. Juices (including those in the smoothies) are fresh-squeezed. Rolled pitas -- lightly toasted and available with a wide variety of filling options -- are a signature offering.
A full service restaurant, Aladdin's Eatery is the first Triangle location of a family-owned Ohio chain. Owner Tom Chebib, nephew of founder Fady Chamoun, ran the family's Toledo location before moving to Raleigh to open the Sutton Square restaurant. Chebib has remodeled the space previously occupied by Tasca Brava, giving the dining room a more open, warmly inviting look. There's also a bar, one of whose distinctions is that it serves the Lebanese beer Almaza.
Also in North Raleigh, Pita Delite (8315 Creedmoor Road; 845-1212; www.pitadelite.com) is a counter service eatery offering dine-in, takeout and delivery. The restaurant offers a wide variety of hot and cold pita sandwiches (also available on a sub roll), with gyro, chicken kebab, steak and cheese, chicken salad and falafel among its 16 options. Prices are eminently reasonable, with nothing on the menu (which also includes and assortment of salads and hot platters) costing more than $7.49. Children under 10 eat free when ordering from the kids' menu and accompanied by a paying adult.
Owner Kamal Dergham opened the original Pita Delite in Greensboro in 1987 and has since opened several more locations in the Triad and Wilmington. Each day, Dergham commutes from his home in Greensboro to run the North Raleigh shop. I'm as impressed with his consistently friendly demeanor after such a grueling commute as I am with the quality and variety of his food.