807 1/2 Millersport Hwy., Amherst NY 14226
Web: Natalie's Cafe & Deli
Rating: [learn more]
Authentic Greek and Lebanese dishes, made fresh at extremely reasonable prices, and complemented by impressive side dishes and rice pudding. Fast, friendly service.
Worn strip plaza location and plain decor offer no hint as to the impressive food quality. Baklava was plain.
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Amherst Greek Lebanese Mediterranean Williamsville
"Overall, while we'd recommend either of these places as worthwhile for either Greek or Lebanese food, we'd rush back to Natalie's; they both deliver good value for the dollar."
While Western New Yorkers may lack for fancy Mediterranean restaurants, we have no shortage of Greek souvlaki and gyro shops - every Erie County city and town seems to have at least a couple, and Buffalo has many more, including several especially noteworthy locales. This week, we're simultaneously reviewing a couple of noteworthy suburban options: Natalie's Cafe & Deli in Amherst, and Rachel's Cafe & Deli in Williamsville (5953 Main, 716.635.1100). Both are small, family-run Greek and Lebanese restaurants in less than glamorous old strip mall locations, but they each stand out on the quality of their food or service.
What struck us as most notable about Natalie's was the consistently high quality of the dishes we ordered; most of the many items we ordered fell into the "surprisingly very good" to "great" category, and only one was only "okay." On our visit to Rachel's, by contrast, we were impressed more by the service: unflinchingly polite and attentive, our server made clear that he really appreciated his customers, and as we sat in the place, struck the right balance between educating unfamiliar patrons on menu options and providing service as items emerged fresh from the kitchen. That said, we tried Rachel's on a less than busy day, and found that the items were a little slow coming out of the kitchen, both due to pickup orders and fresh preparation.
At each place, we started our meal with a Fatayer, a triangular Lebanese variant on the Greek spinach pie Spanikopita that preserves the spinach and feta cheese, but adds tomatoes, and replaces the phyllo dough with a folded pita. Toasted and sliced into three pieces, Natalie's version was uncommonly good, every crispy bite padded gently in the center with nicely cooked spinach and salty white crumbles of feta. Rachel's was served intact and softer - a little less crispy, its similar ingredients actually a bit more generous inside, but comparatively not quite as strongly flavored.
We ordered different second appetizers at the two places: at Natalie's, we picked a plate of six Grape Leaves, which are leaves stuffed with meat and rice - items which are easy to render dry, chewy, or otherwise not very good. Here, they were delicious: the soft, fat finger-sized lemony green leaves were packed with a savory rice, their outsides obviously fresh and tender enough to yield to bites, and their insides warm and thankfully not gooey. Hummus, a plate of mashed chickpeas, sesame paste, and lemon juice with spots of olive oil on the surface, was our pick at Rachel's; as with its Fatayer, we were pleased by the dish, but not blown away.
For entrees, we went with similar dishes at each place. One was the Shawarma, a Middle Eastern alternative to gyros or souvlaki - a shaved meat-packed pita, which arrived at Rachel's loaded with thin strips of shaved lamb, and at Natalie's as a chicken version with large chunks of grilled, marinated chicken. Normally, we're suckers for a pita with the meat density of Rachel's version, but the balance of hot meat, crispy lettuce, and french fry-sliced potatoes in Natalie's was just wonderful, and served on a plate with our choice of sides. We picked and devoured the baba ganoush, a mashed, creamy dip made from eggplant, garlic, sesame paste and lemon, as well as the tabouli, a pile of finely minced parsley with bits of tomato and couscous inside. Light on couscous, the tabouli was otherwise delicious, fresh and strong on lemon flavor.
We also tried the beef souvlaki at both places, with similar results: the Rachel's version was very good, with plenty of meat, but a hint overcooked; Natalie's was better, its pita packed with a nice balance of onions, feta, lettuce, and beef - good quality beef - then served with a cup of especially well-seasoned dressing. Neither was the best we've ever had at a Mediterranean restaurant, even locally, but we were pleased with each one, and would order them again. A Greek Salad at Rachel's, not ordered at Natalie's, emerged very generously topped with feta cheese, carrying on this place's consistent theme of picking a staple ingredient and impressing the customer with its quantity.
As our meal at Rachel's took a while, and our entrees had more time to settle in our stomachs, we opted not to hang around there to try the dessert. Our speedier meal at Natalie's was a different story: in addition to the Baklava we spotted at the beginning of the meal, we were curious about a plastic container of Rice Pudding we noticed in the refrigerator on the way in. Frankly, we didn't suspect it would be all that good, and even more frankly, we were wrong. It was delicious for reasons we can't explain, glistening with a certain glutinous glaze that is wholly uncharacteristic of the Greek versions we normally would expect to follow such a meal, then topped with a few soft raisins and cinnamon. We were comparatively unimpressed by the diamond-shaped baklava, which was a bit too dry, lacking in honey, and small. It was also cheap - under $1.50 - so it's hard to complain.
Overall, while we'd recommend either of these places as worthwhile for either Greek or Lebanese food, we'd rush back to Natalie's. To be as clear at this point as we were in the introduction, Natalie's and Rachel's both have all the classic trappings of hole-in-the-wall restaurants - they sit in worn-down plazas, with meager decor, and clearly keep prices low by saving on the ambience. Yet they both deliver good value for the dollar, Natalie's especially so, and even if the individual items there aren't the very best we've ever had, they are so very good across the board that we'd have confidence ordering anything. As we don't issue quarter stars, our rating of Natalie's is rounded up to 3.5 stars, and Rachel's is about right at 2.5 stars.