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Cheap eats

If you're already a fan of the Falafel Bar on Elmwood Avenue, the answer is yes.

The question, of course, is whether the restaurant's Amherst clone serves up tasty Mediterranean treats that are as good as the ones you've come to expect from the Elmwood locale. There are a few differences -- less funky streetscape outside and a parking lot, for two -- but once you step inside and get a whiff of the delights whipped up in the kitchen, you know you're home.

But what if you're not that familiar with Mediterranean cooking? My recommendation is that you give it a try -- this is truly first-class, healthful food served quickly.

I met Ruth, her niece Susie and our friend Margaret for a late lunch on a recent Saturday. Few of the 14 tables were occupied, but I could see this place filling up fast during dinner. The menu is extensive and helpfully detailed, and our server listed the specials and returned to answer questions. We wanted to sample some varied selections, so we started with a Falafel combo for $8.25. This platter featured four crispy, delicious falafel, or chickpea balls, which looked like large mushrooms and tasted healthful even though they were fried. Rich with ground parsley, the falafel sat in a pool of hummus, a creamy, garlicky chickpea dip. "Now this is delicious, fresh hummus," said Susie, as we used fragrant toasted pita triangles to dig in.

Also on the platter was a Greek salad of chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, feta cheese and lettuce that was incredibly crisp, fresh and tasty.

Margaret's Montauk Salad may have seemed to skate along the edge of cheap ($7.99 for the salad, plus $2.50 with chicken) except that it was really two meals. "It's hard to find the lettuce in here," she said. "I'm digging under the vegetables to look for it." The tomato, cucumber, onion, chickpeas and corn sat under four grilled chicken tenders, and gorgonzola and a light olive oil and lemon dressing finished it off. It was exceptional, and more than half of it went home in a box.

The wraps Susie and I ordered arrived swathed in foil to help in handling, but accompanied by silverware in the understanding that the battle would eventually be lost. My chicken shawarma wrap ($8.25) was a warm, soft pita filled with sliced chicken breast. My only quibble was with the warmed lettuce inside. Susie's Lebanese-style wrap ($5.99) contained falafel, tabouli, or bulgur salad, and tahini, a sesame paste. "The flavors are blending perfectly," she said.

But we all coveted Ruth's choice, a simple fried eggplant dish ($4.50). The eggplant skin was a bit crispy and sweetly carmelized, while the flesh was soft and moist. The slightly smoky-tasting slices had just a few tomatoes and a bit of feta on them, a perfect preparation.

-- Anne Neville

***

Falafel Bar

3689 Sheridan Drive, Amherst

831-3982

Review: 3 1/2 stars (Out of 4)

"Tantalizing tastes."

The Falafel Bar is open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from noon to 8 p.m. Sunday. It is handicapped-accessible.

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