Lexington's legions of "Mediterranean" menus mimic one another. They are all based on a fairly predictable show of dishes from throughout the Middle East and its surrounding areas. Differences among them are primarily those of style and quality.
La Pita is the latest restaurant to offer this popular cuisine. Its location, on Leestown Road, is most convenient to residents of the Masterson Station and Meadowthorpe neighborhoods, and to travelers in and out of town via U.S. 421. Like most of its cohorts, the atmosphere is casual and relatively unfussy.
What sets La Pita apart is a more hybridized style that, while embracing the spirit of the food, often executes it with what feels like shortcuts or a hands-off approach. Sometimes the result is authentic and pleasing; sometimes it falls flat.
The vegetarian plate ($6.95) includes something for everyone. There are two plump falafel, whose crunchy exteriors reveal fluffy interiors of bulghur and garbanzo bean batter. These delightful bites lack only some herbs — perhaps cilantro? The stuffed grape leaves are nice — tart with hints of lemon filled with soft rice and bulghur that make a good textural contrast with their chewy wrappers. But again, understatement need not omit the more traditional inclusions of mint, garlic and parsley.
But the restraint that bordered on bland in these dishes succeeded beautifully with the hummus, which had just a whisper of garlic rather than the all-too-familiar nasty overdose.
La Pita's version of baba ghannouj was my least favorite of the plate's six items. It was slightly smoky but under-roasted and heavy on the salt, producing a sharp, burning mouthfeel. The texture, too, was odd: overprocessed to the point of being watery.
Both dips could have used more olive oil.
You will find here, as at all of Lexington's Mediterranean restaurants, a delicious lentil soup ($1.99) whose tomato and onion layers came through. It was served piping hot with mild seasoning — not too much cumin or garlic — and was pleasantly straightforward.
The fatoush salad ($2.99) that I sampled was absolutely fantastic: fresh pita "croutons," ripe tomatoes, crisp iceberg lettuce, flecks of red cabbage and a light vinaigrette with sumac.
Servings at La Pita are obviously a good value; two or more vegetarians could eat well here for less than $12 (each of these appetizers separately costs $2 to $3), but so could a couple of self-respecting omnivores.
Take, for example, the entree La Pita Combination Plate ($9.99) — more a platter than a plate — that comes with chicken and "meat," in this case beef, and includes soup or salad and pita bread.
You get lots of rice, some white and sautéed with vermicelli, some yellow and rich. You also get a tall pile of chicken shawarma — shards, rather than shavings, of white meat that taste more individually grilled than spit-roasted. Either way, it was delicious. But the "meat" was shawarma in name only: tough strands of seemingly stir-fried beef that were coated with a layer of indeterminate spices. An accompanying garlic sauce was more textured than I am used to, but that didn't detract from its delights.
A meal at La Pita is certainly a healthy bargain but could benefit from greater attention to detail and a stricter approach to what comes out of the kitchen.