I have eaten Oded Rauvenpoor's Israeli-based Middle Eastern cooking in five different buildings over eight years, and we've discussed the finer points of his dishes more times than I can count.
So it was no surprise that during a recent visit, he stopped by before we ordered. It was actually our second meal at Falafel Bar since he moved into bigger digs on Sheridan Drive in the Northtown Plaza.
Customers walk into an artfully decorated lounge space with booths, lots of room and a long bar that hosts a daily happy hour. The main dining room is beyond it, and a passage leads to more tables outside under umbrellas.
I've been a fan of Rauvenpoor's cuisine and a regular customer, albeit a critical one. (I don't love his falafel.) He's built a following with tasty versions of family-friendly Middle Eastern food and Greek diner classics.
In his new space, Rauvenpoor has added some terrific dishes, such as schnitzel, and I found improved entrees, such as shawarma. Not all of the new offerings thrilled me, though, and one of my favorites is gone.
Noteworthy new appetizers include "cigars" ($8), seasoned ground beef rolled in pastry and fried, then served with herbed tahini and spicy harissa dipping sauces. On our first visit, these were made with brik, a pastry that created a shatteringly crisp crust. On our second visit, the pastry was less satisfying, thinner and softer, though the filling was the same.
Green wings ($9) are fried chicken wings tossed in homemade green hot sauce of jalapeno, garlic, parsley and more. They're a fresh, pungent take on chicken wings, with a blast of spicy herbal flavor -- too much heat for tamer palates.
Brik ($8) was a ring of sweet potatoes rolled in Moroccan pastry, with a crunchy green lentil salad, a hearty, unusual vegetarian appetizer.
We ordered a falafel appetizer ($6) with tahini (ground sesame) and tzatziki (garlicky yogurt) dips. The six falafel balls were nicely crusty and flecked with green herbs, and others were happy with them. I tasted undercooked legumes.
Many plates and dinners can be tried in smaller doses as sandwiches. Dave chose the lamb kufta sandwich ($8.50), with kufta, a grilled seasoned meatball, in a pita pocket with salad. Other than wishing for more meat and less salad, Dave was pleased.
The chicken shawarma plate ($13) had other diners besieging Lisa for tastes. The chicken had been layered with spice, then grilled and sliced. It was moist and well-seasoned, accented with tahini sauce. The "Greek potatoes" were fried chunks, not a baked, soft version, and I couldn't detect lemon, garlic or oregano.
Anna, a spanikopita fan, pronounced Falafel Bar's version ($10), with a lemony filling redolent of dill, "really good."
Cat asked for the chicken schnitzel ($13), thin chicken breast pieces rolled in crumbs and sesame seeds before being expertly fried.
The first time we had the schnitzel, the chicken pieces were larger, which seemed to help keep moisture inside. But this plate was still one of our favorites, a quantum upgrade from chicken fingers.
I tried the new plate of seven-spice grilled chicken in baharat demi-glace ($13). It was moist enough, and its spice complexity added some interest, but cinnamon dominated. I missed the Mediterranean chicken it replaced, grilled thighs expertly marinated in turmeric and other spices.
Desserts included rice pudding ($3.25) and a baklava sundae ($5). The pudding was smooth, with tender rice, though it could have been sweeter. The sundae used chunks of the classic phyllo-and-nuts dessert as welcome accents.
I didn't love everything, but Falafel Bar offers solid values across the menu. I look forward to seeing how it grows up.
Falafel Bar †††
RATING: 7 †††
DESCRIPTION: Middle Eastern family restaurant serves winning dinners in new Sheridan Drive space. †††
WHERE: 3689 Sheridan Drive, Amherst (831-3982, www.thefalafelbar.com). †††
HOURS: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; and 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday. †††
PRICE RANGE: Appetizers and sandwiches, $3-$8.50. Entrees $10-$19. †††
PARKING: In the lot.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes. †††