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Monday, January 17, 2011

La vie en pita

How the humble pita became a popular menu item at gourmet restaurants.

The restaurant world's most closely guarded secret project this winter is not a sleekly designed new restaurant, a gourmet bistro or a new menu. The next challenge facing Eyal Shani, the chef who waxed poetic in the "Master Chef" series, is none other than a pita stand, set to open in the coming months at the intersection of Kaplan and Ibn Gvirol streets in Tel Aviv.

The dishes and ingredients are being kept secret, but Shani promised, "We will create something new there." At his Tel Aviv restaurant, Abraxas North, he already serves several experimental pita dishes that have been well received, from pita filled with shrimp and aioli sauce to minute steak in pita.

Shani is not alone: Pita is making a grand comeback in gourmet restaurants. No longer just the simple, familiar baked bread used at shawarma stands, it is now served in a hot pan, with sauces, fennel seeds, salads and stir-fried meat cubes.

Did it ever actually leave us? The 1980s were noted for steak in a pita at eateries such as Mi Va'mi and Pam Pam. But in the 1990s and early 2000s, it seemed that restaurants were pushing aside the steak joints, and the pita was stepping aside in favor of the plate. Yet it is the nature of trends to make comebacks - in a flaming pan. And with the return of simple cooking to restaurants, pitas are also making a return, in new variations.

The Yoezer Wine Bar in Jaffa has for years served a "gullet in pita" dish that has been very popular. Chef Aviv Moshe of Masa in Tel Aviv serves gourmet shawarma on laffa bread. Tel Aviv's Shilo combines pita baked fresh on the premises with fennel seeds, salads and a main dish such as shrimp.

This, it seems, is the era of the self-conscious pita. At the Hadar Ha'okhel restaurant in Tel Aviv, Chef Omer Miller replaced the lamb pita dish with a "tavern" dish - bits of Cornish hen served on tehina and lemon grass, with tomatoes and seared onions, Arabic salad of onions and sumac, and, of course, pita. According to Itay Spivack, part owner of the restaurant, "the pita was always popular among diners. It's a plain pita devoid of ceremony that we sear lightly on the grill and serve."

"In Jerusalem, the pita never left," noted Chef Eli Vaknin, who opened Fortuna, an upscale steak house on the edge of Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda market. "Only in Tel Aviv are they excited about it."

Vaknin worked as a chef at 1868 and Aqua before opening his meat restaurant, where he roasts meat on a charcoal grill and serves it with dishes such as avocado salad and celery salad. Everything, naturally, is served in a pita, which comes from the Duvshanit bakery in Mahane Yehuda.

Jerusalem's MahaneYuda restaurant took the pita project one step further. Behind the dish listed on the menu as "give me a nice portion" lies a mini-pita baked on the premises, filled with veal sweetbreads and served the same way as pitas at falafel stands - in a triangular metal holder with a plastic bag and pickles. According to Chef Assaf Granit, the restaurant will soon be serving chopped sashimi in a mini-pita.

Not only chefs are fond of pita: It has become a sophisticated item that Israelis export to Europe and present at food expos all over the world. The Nina bakery in Kiryat Haim developed a method for freezing and defrosting pitas that prevents them from tearing and is now exporting pitas to Europe and the United States. Its pitas were also shown at the SIAL 2010 food expo held in Paris in October. The bakery's clients include chefs in Belgium and Holland and the Dutch airline KLM.