3689 Sheridan Dr, Amherst, NY 14226
Web: Falafel Bar
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Amherst Greek Mediterranean
"From what we've gathered, our meal was not a uniquely bad experience... there are ups and downs based on how the staff is interacting with the management on a given day."
There is no single definition of what the words "Mediterranean cuisine" are supposed to mean, but in the United States, a Mediterranean restaurant almost always starts with dishes that are commonly known as Greek, then spreads out to one or two other nearby cultures. We can't speak for the food at the original Elmwood location of The Falafel Bar, which bills itself as a "Mediterranean eatery," but after a cramped, overcooked meal, we wouldn't go back to the Sheridan Drive location in Amherst.
The Story: The Elmwood Avenue Falafel Bar's reputation as the area's best Middle Eastern restaurant was enough to rope us in. We love Greek food. We really enjoy the various Middle Eastern cuisines we've tried. And we have extremely fond memories of the last place we visited that billed itself, amorphously, as Mediterranean - Aladdin's Natural Eatery in Ithaca, now apparently under different management. At the right sort of place, like the Aladdin's of old, a Mediterranean meal can involve wonderful seafood dishes such as Octopus Salad, pastas with Italian or Greek flavors, and perhaps even sweet, honey-loaded dessert dishes such as the funnel cake-like Zulbia, known to Indians in slightly modified form as Jelabi. Elsewhere, Mediterranean can mean "mostly just Greek food." And that's what we found at Falafel Bar. The menu consists almost entirely of items you'd be likely to find at any other Greek restaurant, plus a collection of fried garbanzo bean Falafel fritter options served with salads or wraps. A handful of other not-strictly-Greek options are available, as well.
Highs: By comparison with other local restaurants, we really didn't find any highs at the Falafel Bar. In the absence of great food, decor, and service, we would normally highlight the size of the menu, how the location is a standout, or other vaguely interesting factors of the sort. There really wasn't anything we found positive enough to call out about our experience here, though friends and family have praised - with qualifications such as "they're good, but mostly because they're otherwise hard to find" - items such as the eponymous Falafel ($4.50 - $8.50) and the rice-packed grape leaves called Dolmades ($5.75). We weren't in the mood for these particular items when we visited, and in all honesty would be reluctant to come back to try them.
Lows: Why? Literally everything we ordered at the Falafel Bar was overcooked. We started the meal with an all-time favorite, the phyllo dough and spinach pie Spanakopita ($8), which we quite literally had never once been served poorly in the many, many years we've been eating the dish. In fact, we pick this dish to try at Greek and Mediterranean restaurants because it's always guaranteed to be at least good, and in the right hands, it can be great.
Here, the Spanakopita looked like a fairly large piece, which was appropriate to the relatively high asking price - twice that of other local places - and arrived on a plate with Greek salad, a hard-boiled egg, and the cold yogurt and cucumber dip Tzatziki, none of which were really necessary from our standpoint. We took our photo without really inspecting the Spanakopita, then took our first bites: it was burnt. On the top and on the bottom. And it was just not something we even wanted to finish eating. The hard-boiled egg and Tzatziki, which we hadn't really wanted in the first place, had mixed a bit of their flavors into the underbelly of the typically flaky, soft spinach and cheese pie, which struck us as a mix of dough, char, and overly hot, mushy spinach tastes; we got through as much of the plate as we could, and hoped that our other items would be better.
They weren't. A plate of Lamb Souvlaki ($9) was described as "marinated top round lamb, char-broiled," and like the Spanakopita emerged overdone - here, not so much burnt as roasted to the point where the very flavor of the lamb had been chased out, leaving what is commonly a succulent, moist meat tasting like chewy bits of slightly gamey beef. Had it not been ordered as lamb, we mightn't have known that it was; it was a major disappointment.
The last item we ordered was a special of the day, an $8 wrap with a specially seasoned chicken that our server described as especially good. Delivered in the requisite foil and wrapped in a pleasant enough thick circle of dough, the chicken chunks tasted as if they had been mildly flavored with pepper, lemon, and olive oil, and though they weren't anywhere near as overcooked as the lamb or Spanakopita, their small size left little to be tender or memorably delicious. As such, we finished our meal with three dishes that we hadn't really enjoyed, and opted not to bother with dessert.
Compounding the food quality issues were the restaurant's seating, which was quite literally as cramped as at any place we have ever visited locally; it was as if the small dining area had literally been measured by the cubic foot for seating potential, and every table squeezed to fit as many warm bodies as possible. We felt uncomfortable in our seats, and also got to listen to a tense, indiscreet discussion between a manager and some member of the wait staff, which further detracted from the meal. This is apparently somewhat common, and we wonder how unpredictable the meals may be due to such unpleasantness.
The Verdict: We can't speak to the other Falafel Bar location, but based on our experience at the restaurant in Amherst, we wouldn't rush back to risk another dinner like the one we had there. From what we've gathered from friends and family, our meal - both the food quality and cramped quarters - was not a uniquely bad experience, though apparently there are ups and downs based on factors such as how the staff is interacting with the management on a given day. Our preference is for predictably good food, prepared properly, served well in a comfortable environment; if we have reason to believe that the Amherst Falafel Bar can deliver repeatedly on such an experience, perhaps we'll consider stopping in again.