Made-from-scratch Mediterranean just off the expressway.
By Gwendolen Groocock • photographs by randee daddona
MEDFORD—Joff Sahin muses over a faded map of Turkey as he relaxes at a table in his restaurant, the Pita House, waiting for the evening rush. Here is the great city of Istanbul, straddling Europe and Asia; to the west, Greece. South is Syria and the Mediterranean Sea, and the Black Sea is to the north.
“This is it; this is Anatolie, where I was born,” he says, pointing to the rugged eastern area of the country. “Near the Euphrates River. You know, the Garden of Eden.”
“I come from the mountains,” he says.” I grew up on a farm; as a boy, I herded sheep.” Any cherished culinary traditions in Anatolie? “Oh, yes, we are famous for our kebabs!” Sahin says, smiling.
Sahin makes a mean kebab himself. In fact, the Pita House enjoys steady praise from major critics and media, and has been awarded top Zagat ratings for value and Mediterranean cuisine every year since 1997. It’s a hidden gem, with a loyal clientele willing to brave the seedy strip malls that line 112, a few minutes south of Exit 64 on the Long Island Expressway.
“It’s one of my favorite restaurants,” says Pete Cotter, co-owner of Blue Point Brewing Company microbrewery in nearby Patchogue. The Pita House has been his go-to place for lunch and dinner for years, he says. Beer, of course, is a great match for the subtly spicy cuisine of the Eastern Mediterranean—Blue Point does a hoppy number called “Old Howling Bastard” that would go great with the marinated grilled vegetables of the Iskender kebab or the ground lamb “pizza” called “lahmajoun.”
On this late Sunday afternoon at the Pita House, a fair number of people occupy tables and pick up takeout orders. Some have kids in tow, some drink wine with their meal. Some are regulars who swing off the LIE for a quick bite before heading back to New York City. There’s a Friday crowd that does the same on the way out to the East End, Sahin says.
“Hamptons people,” he says, gesturing to a couple in chic biker leathers and long scarves. They go straight for the soup. Pita House sells more than 200 gallons of soup a week. Many places claim fame for their soups, but it has to be said that the soups here really are very good.
We taste the soups with fresh-baked, crusty, springy Turkish bread. The chicken lemon has a bit of dill, the turkey orzo is flavored with green pepper, and the spinach yogurt soup is smooth and tangy. But the red lentil soup, with its hint of mint and mysterious layers of flavors imparted by Sahin’s secret ingredients, is, we decide, the most tasty and tantalizing item on the menu.
“Lentil soup is the signature dish of any Turkish restaurant,” Sahin says. “Every restaurant has its own lentil soup. We are very serious about it.”
At the Pita House, everything is made from scratch, in traditional fashion modified slightly for American palates.
“The source of flavor in Eastern Mediterranean cooking is the spices,” Sahin says. “The meats are lean, and we use a lot of olive oil. If you compare that to Western cooking, where flavor comes from butter, fats, it’s really more healthy.”
Sahin scorns freezers and microwaves, and the only thing he buys in cans is tomato paste. All ingredients are purchased fresh, never frozen, the meat sourced from New York City markets, the produce also, and, in season, from East End farms. Three times a week, Sahin does the rounds, buying for the Pita House and its sister restaurant in East Setauket. He also sources imported dried fruits, nuts, olives, cheeses and many other Eastern Mediterranean drinks, sweets and delicacies for his grocery shop next to the restaurant.
Sahin has made hard decisions along the way, like foregoing halal certification on the meats in favor of quality, and parting ways with a produce distributor whose standards he thought were slacking. And he refuses to be seduced by the siren song of the spud.
“I have never sold French fries,” he says. “The most popular, easy sell, most profitable item, I kept off my menu. Instead, I give more food; rice, hummus, baba ghanoush. Had I French fries on my menu, 50 percent of my customers would eat French fries and never try these other wonderful things. Imagine in all these years how many people I have saved from French fries?” he says, laughing.
More dishes arrive. There’s icli kofte, potato balls stuffed with bulgur wheat, and Turkish cigars, which are tasty rolls of shaved pastrami-like cured meat and feta cheese. Eggplant is also much in evidence. “Eggplant is the mother of all vegetables,” Sahin declares.
A huge platter of grilled meats and vegetables lands on the table; Adana kebab, formed of succulent, spicy ground lamb, is a standout. There’s also lamb, beef and turkey gyro meat—the last a Pita House original. Pita House, naturally, makes its own gyro meat, the big, conical towers that revolve in front of a flame grill. Meat is trimmed and sliced into rounds, then piled upon a skewer in layers. As it grills, it tightens up into a solid hunk that is then sliced thinly on the vertical.
Sahin is a rare combination, a savvy businessman who understands the appeal of good value but won’t compromise on quality, a man who can dream big and work seven days a week for decades to make his dreams come true. He is fiercely loyal to his employees—Juan, the chef, comes from El Salvador and started at the Pita House as a dishwasher. Sahin also has an unflagging enthusiasm for spreading the word about his cuisine. He teaches cooking classes, talks at libraries and clubs, and is an influential member of the local business community’s economic development panel.
Above all, he is extremely passionate about his food.
“You can say what you want to me, you can lie or steal from me, but never, ever mess with my food,” he says. The servers, Ali and Serdar, are trying not to look amused, because Sahin is only half joking.
But despite his devoted clientele and continued critical success, Sahin still sometimes feels he is crying in the wilderness. “This is a hard place to be trying something like this,” he says, waving his hand toward the world outside his window that is, unfortunately, typical of this country. “Look around; it’s all fast food.”
Growing up, Sahin always had a soft spot for America, he says. An uncle had emigrated here, and told the kids back home streets-paved-with-gold stories. One day, when he was 14, Sahin read a newspaper report of a Turkish restaurant opening in Chicago.
“I was like, wow!” he says. “I’m going to America to open a restaurant!”
After studying at Michigan State University, he worked in the Chicago restaurant industry. Sahin found the East End through friends, and in 1993, he opened the Pita House with four tables. People didn’t know what to make of it, he says. Another Turkish place opened nearby, more of a deli, popular with working men and a culturally traditional crowd. Sahin deliberately set out to make his place “American-friendly,” with full table service, a simple menu and a light hand with the spices.
The first brave customers, including an older English couple from nearby Brookhaven Labs, loved the place from the start. Whenever the couple came in, Sahin would select an especially large hot pepper to roast and lay alongside the grilled meats. Without fail, the gentleman would pick up the pepper and start in on it. It was a competition. With sweat breaking out on his forehead, the man would stand up, snap his hand to his head and declare, “I salute this pepper!”
But business was too slow. One evening in 1997, Sahin sat in his near-empty restaurant, thinking, “What did I get myself into?” when the phone rang. It was an influential food critic looking to write a review.
“That review put us on the map,” Sahin says. “From then on, we got a lot of attention.”
Pita House expanded to a dozen tables in 2000, and in 2007, Sahin opened a more elegant, upscale version of the restaurant in East Setauket. Then, of course, the economy took a turn for the worse. But he remains optimistic. “There’s no way the new restaurant shouldn’t do well,” he says. “It just depends how long I can hang on there.”
Sahin has also expanded his events catering service, and taken on a new partnership venture, a contemporary American ale house and wine bar. The theme is “Eat, Drink, Love Local!” and the wine and beer lists will be largely Long Island, Sahin says. The layout is strongly influenced by its previous incarnation as a sports bar, but he’s reconfiguring a side space to accommodate small events and wine dinners.
Yet Sahin’s future now holds so much more than long hours at his restaurants.
“Finally, after all these years, I have found time to have a family,” Sahin says, showing us photos on his phone of his baby daughter. Here she is, laughing and crawling. She loves to come into the restaurant.
“She heads straight for the kitchen, and expects to be picked up, put on the table and fed,” he says. “When we go out to other restaurants, she does the same thing.”
Lastly, along with excellent Turkish coffee, comes a parade of honey-soaked, pistachio-dusted pastries. Sahin has also prepared a special treat, beloved of all Turkish children and reminiscent of his childhood summers in Anatolie. It’s kazan dibi, creamy rice custard with a cinnamon-sugar crust, and it’s delicious; the name means “bottom of the pot.”
Gwendolen Groocock is the editor of the Greenport Guide, and writes about food, wine, travel and mommyhood from her home in Greenport.
Full-circle flavor: Joff Sahin, who opened the lauded Pita House in Medford nearly 20 years ago, says, “The source of flavor in Eastern Mediterranean cooking is the spices.” Clockwise from top right, turkey orzo soup, Turkish shepherd’s salad, Turkish pistachio nuts, kunefe (a sweet cheese pastry topped with crushed pistachios), Turkish cigars (rolled phyllo, stuffed with Turkish pastrami), handmade bread, humus with pita, and Sahin preparing kabobs.