Like so many things in life, our opinions of a food experience often hinge on our expectations. When I anticipate Mediterranean cuisine, the bar has been permanently raised thanks to the offerings at Mediterranean Deli on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill. I have owner Jamil Kadoura to thank for broadening my understanding of what pita, hummus, falafel and kofta can be, and for enlightening my senses to the tastes of lemony sumac and pickled Persian root.
That seems to be about the only parallel I can draw between my Mediterranean standard and the food being served at Pita Grill, a new Greek restaurant now open in the Timberlyne Shopping Center in Chapel Hill.
Though the overall experience was pleasant and the food edible, some of it even enjoyable, I would have to live within a few minutes' driving distance to eat here with any sort of regularity.
Based on the décor, it feels as though the owners are unsure of themselves. Not only do restaurants need to offer food worth every cent charged, but the environment needs to contribute to the experience as well. You only get to get away with being a successful hole-in-the-wall if your food is awesome, cheap or both. The food at Pita Grill was neither awesome nor all that cheap, but I would certainly describe it as a hole-in-the-wall, and not the kind we recall fondly from our college days, diners that were still open at 4 a.m. and therefore immune to all judgment. I love a hookah-and-Persian-carpet design scheme, but those touches were not enough to make the place feel welcoming.
What was welcoming, however, was the service, or at least the vibe of the service. Our server forgot a few requests, but she did so with a smile, was highly apologetic and emanated good will. When I ordered a few dishes to go, the owner went so far as to throw in a few extra items he thought my children might like. The rice pudding was a hit among my kids later that night. (I thought it a bit runny and too sweet, but then my grandma makes a mean rice pudding.)
As for the rest of the menu, some items were notably good, such as the falafel pita wrap ($8.50), though it did not automatically come with tztziki, one of my favorite condiments. So I asked for it. The falafel was the greenest I'd ever encountered, replete with herbs. The family would not divulge any ingredient details other than cilantro. It was verdant and fresh, a nice riff on a standard dish.
Other items were good, but not marvelous. The Greek lasagna ($9.50) and the spanikopita ($9.75) had a nice interplay of sweeter, ethnic spices with the sharper, savory tones our Western palates are accustomed to. I wish they gave the diners some credit on the menu and described the lasagna as pastisio, with a béchamel rather than a "white sauce."
The gyro was conventional; the dressing on the salad a predictable lemony Greek vinaigrette. The hummus was bland, and the mountain of French fries that came with the wraps were underseasoned and obviously frozen.
Pita Grill fell short in the starch department—a travesty, really, since there is so much potential with pita. The breads were utterly average; the pita as a side was served oiled and grilled, which added little. The baklava ($2.99) was quite dry and crackly.
I wondered why there was pastrami and Philly sandwiches on this menu—go Greek or go home, I say. Trust in this ethnic culinary heritage and bring it. I was told the menu was ripe with old family recipes and that the owners make everything from scratch. I wanted so much to enjoy it more based on that image, but it's just that—an image.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Mixed grill."