The Loop is looking a lot like Lebanon (culinarily speaking)

May 21, 2010

Within the past few months, you can't walk more than a block or two in the Loop and not bump into a falafel joint. As a Loop worker myself, I've always had a hard time finding great baba gannoush, hummus and especially shawarma. Yet three new places are hoping downtown workers are ready for Jerusalem salad and kebabs as good as those found in Albany Park.

Olive Mediterranean Grill is the brainchild of Faisal Ghani, an entrepreneur who already owns more than a dozen Jimmy Johns in the region. Ghani is from Pakistan, and while Middle Eastern food is not what he grew up eating, he's clearly interested in exposing Loop workers to the bright flavors and vegetarian-friendly items from the Middle East. He's created a fast-casual concept that is geared around freshly-made shawarma, juicy kebabs and falafel that is made from scratch. Olive occupies the back corner of an unremarkable food court at Clark and Lake (think Popeye's and McD's), but I've noticed a regular batch of regulars already lining up by 12 p.m. most weekdays, ready to snarf down $5 shawarma sandwiches and salad sampler plates.


Venetian Plate from Roti (photo by Joseph Storch)

Across the street from the "Whatch you talkin' 'bout" Willis Tower, Roti is another fast-casual Mediterranean concept, with four locations in the region, including two in the Loop. The store is hoping to go nationwide, and has already opened a store in downtown Washington D.C., a block from the White House. Roti's board is chaired by Mats Lederhausen, the man who shepherded the IPO for Chipotle. The concept is all about fire-roasted, fresh ingredients. It's not letter-perfect authentic Lebanese - the falafel alone could launch a dozen arguments on the pros and cons of whole or ground chickpeas - but it's more of an interpretation of those flavors, presented to an American audience that may not be as familiar with those traditional dishes.


Kebab plate from Roti (photo by Joseph Storch)

I Dream of Falafel is the latest concept to open in the Loop; they have two locations already, and from the looks of their kitschy website, they could be destined for far more. I haven't had a chance to get to this place yet, but it's on my list. You can see more video from Roti and Olive Mediterranean Grill‚ right here, after 11:30 a.m. today.