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Cleveland's Sitting Pretty With Fast-Casual Middle Eastern Fare 

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Photo by Emanuel Wallace

There may be no hotter food trend right now than Middle Eastern cuisine — specifically, fast-casual Middle Eastern. From large and growing national chains all the way down to indie one-offs, new concepts built around hummus, pita and falafel seem to be popping up every other day. Two such concepts recently joined the fray in Northeast Ohio — Brassica, which makes its home at the Van Aken District, and Sitoo's, a new addition to Playhouse Square.

Brassica, which began life a few years back in the Short North neighborhood of Columbus, beautifully illustrates the appeal of this health-focused, plant-forward category. Focus and transparency seem to be the guiding principles behind the regional restaurant group, where a concise roster of items is prepared from scratch in the bright light of day.

Step inside the attractive, contemporary space and you're immediately greeted by a colorful cornucopia of vegetables — raw, pickled and roasted ­— that immediately sets Brassica apart from typical steam-table assembly lines. Behind the counter, a glowing hearth turns out a steady stream of warm, fragrant and puffy pitas. Those pitas form the backbone of this souped-up falafel shop, where two-fisted sandwiches are custom built to the diner's own specifications.

When the line attendant cracks open the seam of the pita, a small poof of steam escapes. First comes a layer of hummus or baba, if you'd like, followed by a choice of protein. The falafel ($7.50) is heavenly, with a golden brown exterior giving way to a moist, cumin-scented core. Add crunchy toppers like pickled cabbage, spicy roasted carrots and/or cauliflower with jalapenos. Don't neglect the spicy Z'hug elixir or creamy, garlicky "special sauce." You end up with a portly but manageable sandwich that delivers a roller coaster ride of taste and texture all the way down to the bottom.

In place of falafel, diners can elect to go with robustly seasoned and fall-apart chicken ($8.50), harissa-rubbed brisket ($10.50) or house-cured, pepper-glazed lamb bacon ($11.50). In place of the pita sandwich, diners can have their falafel or meats and toppings layered into a bowl of greens, lentils and rice. Another route is to get an order of the hummus, a smooth, tahini-heavy blend, and top that with a meat. It's particularly enjoyable to scoop up pieces of shredded chicken, hummus and roasting juices with that plush pita and dip it into sauce. Also eminently enjoyable is dunking Brassica's always hot and crisp fries into that dreamy special sauce.

To drink, there is a small selection of local and regional beers on tap, wines by the glass, and minty pink lemonade.

One might assume that a fast-casual spinoff of an existing full-service restaurant would employ a greatly condensed menu. But that's not the case with Sitoo's, an offshoot of the popular Aladdin's Eatery chain of restaurants. In place of a laser-focused menu built around a handful of salads and sandwiches, the restaurant offers the full slate of appetizers — from kibbie to foole m damas — a half a dozen salads, a dozen sandwiches and most of the entrees, despite operating a counter-based operation. What is different is the portion size and price point arrangement, with lower prices supporting lighter builds.

The fattoush salad ($5.75) is nearly $3 cheaper than what's on offer at Aladdin's, but it's every bit as wholesome. A fresh array of mixed greens is tossed in an herby vinaigrette with tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, red onion and plenty of crispy-crunchy pita chips. A dusting of crimson sumac adds pop. Larger salads topped with falafel, shawarma and shistawook offer a pleasant middle ground between appetizer and main course.

Sitoo's wraps are slender twists of lacy pita stuffed with everything from falafel and tahini to grilled chicken and garlic sauce. A lamb pita ($5.45) is a delicious amalgam of grilled lamb patties, tomato, pickles, onions and tahini dressing, but the meat was on the dry side, as though it had been waiting around for me to order it. That turned out to be the case with the Sitoo's Combo ($9.25) as well, with the lean grilled beef tenderloin holding up less well than the ground beef kafta, chicken shawarma and falafel, all of which are joined by fluffy rice pilaf, a small salad and fresh pita.

The dining experience often requires a short wait while the food is prepared, but staffers are happy to deliver it to your seat. Expect a cute but small dining room, anchored at the far end by the kitchen and counter. It's on that counter that you'll find grab-and-go containers of flaky, honey-soaked baklava ($3.50). Grab some before you go.

Sitoo's also has locations in Parma (5870 Ridge Rd., 440-885-2525) and North Olmsted (24930 Lorain Rd., 440-716-8755).

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