DIY Mediterranean, fast
By Alex Baldinger
November 4, 2011
Want to succeed in the fast-casual chain restaurant game? Here's your business model. Step one: Choose an exotic cuisine. For today's lesson, let's pick Mediterranean. Step two: Serve food assembly-line style, with patrons choosing different ingredients as they move down the line. Step three: Wait for your clientele to begin referring to your business as "the Mediterranean Chipotle." And voila: Roti Mediterranean Grill.
The Chicago import joins ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen (which is owned by Chipotle) and Indian purveyor Merzi as the latest eatery to mimic the conveyor-belt concept mastered by the Mexican-themed burrito maker. But there's more to Roti than just the gimmick: The servings are plentiful, inexpensive and varied, with seasonings and condiments from a region that is otherwise underrepresented among the city's lunch options.
"Mediterranean food, it's still becoming kind of mainstream. There are a lot of people in D.C. who have traveled the world and are highly educated," Roti's Peter Nolan said about the chain's colonization of Washington. "We thought the customers would have some familiarity with Mediterranean food," he added, citing Amsterdam Falafelshop, Maoz and Moby Dick as successful ambassadors of the cuisine.
On the menu:
Patrons start by choosing one of three "bases": a sandwich (on pita or laffa bread), a salad or a plate of rice. You know the drill from here. Pick a meat: chicken or steak, served either shawarma style from the vertical rotisserie (roti)
or kebab style. (Vegetarians can opt for falafel or roasted vegetables.) Pick a sauce: The spiciest of the four options, the zhug sauce, has a deep, smoky flavor but won't set off many alarm bells. Pick toppings: You can have up to three, no matter which base you choose. Standouts include tangy sumac onions, Israeli couscous and red cabbage slaw. I typically opt for the velvety baba ghanouj over the standard-issue hummus, though you can ask for both. There's also a handful of pre-set sandwiches and combos for those who can't make up their mind.
For the health-conscious, Roti is a reasonable option in the calorie-laden world of fast-casual lunch spots: Although a Chipotle burrito can hover north of 1,000 calories with 50 grams of fat, Roti's burrito-esque Sultan Sandwich - pita stuffed with chicken, hummus, veggies and spicy sauce - tips the scales at a more manageable 613 calories, with 26.2 grams of fat. The rice plates and salads are leaner but stay away from the falafel if nutrition is your main concern: A six-piece side packs 555 calories and 30 grams of fat.
At your service:
At the height of the lunch rush, the food assembly process can be a bit shambolic, so be sure to keep an eye on your order as it's being made. But one inescapable fact is that Roti is quick, both in terms of service and expansion:
A long line typically moves from back to front in less than 10 minutes; and after launching its first D.C. location on Pennsylvania Avenue in April 2010, the chain opened its sixth, on F Street NW, on Tuesday. A seventh shop, in Rosslyn, is coming next month.