Pity the rotisserie chicken. Once the centerpiece of restaurant chains like Swiss Chalet, the thrill of chickens roasted on a rotating spit, basting in their own juices, has faded from the daily glare of supermarket bargain-seeking.
Even from my allegedly lofty perch, I must confess to feeling the supermarket chicken's gravitational pull. Let those who have never stopped on the way home for a chicken and bag of salad for dinner cast the first stone. When you can get a ready-to-eat chicken for about $6, often less than an uncooked bird costs, why pay more?
After dinner at Almaza Grill, the answer is clear: flavor. Chickens marinated Peruvian-style for days in citrus, garlic and spices arrive with crackling bronzed skin and meat that's flavorful to the bone. Then there's the sauces, punchy green herbal pesto and swoonful garlic mayonnaise. Would you pay $12 for a chicken if it was twice as tasty?
If you wouldn't cross the road for chicken, don't fret. Almaza Grill has a second specialty – Lebanese food, from kebabs and lamb to vegan stars like falafel, babaganoush and fattoush. A vegan dish of stewed green beans with tomatoes and garlic was one of the best things we ate.
Back to my chicken calculations. I tore off skin roasted to a nubbly crunch until I remembered I had guests who might like some, too. I dipped pieces of tender meat in the green sauce, alive with fresh chile and lime juice. I dunked more in the rich white aioli, powered with fresh garlic. Then both together.
A $6 chicken might fill your belly just the same, but Almaza's chicken will make you happier.
The family restaurant offers meals of chicken and Lebanese side dishes at amounts ranging from a quarter chicken with two small side dishes ($9) to a family-packing two whole chickens and four large sides ($45).
After browsing sides, favorites were smoky, silky babaganoush (eggplant with tahini), impeccably fresh Lebanese salata (cubed tomato, cucumber, green pepper, scallion and parsley, simply dressed in extra virgin olive oil and fresh lemon), and tangy yogurt cucumber salad flecked with herbs that I spooned over basmati rice.
Almaza Grill offers also has a solid Lebanese lineup. With the exception of watery hummus, these were solid versions.
Favorites included a sturdy, crunchy fattoush salad ($8). With chopped romaine, green pepper, cucumber, mint and tomato with fried pita chips in olive oil and lemon, it was juicy, crunchy, tangy – a lively dose of vegan vegetation.
The winner in that department was loubie bzeit ($7), a deceptively simple dish of flat Italian green beans braised with onions, garlic and tomato. Something about the olive oil brought sweetness out of the beans and whole cloves of garlic in a gravy-like sauce, making for a humble vegetable dish that's meal-worthy with rice or bread.
Another welcome hit was lamb salad ($13), field mix greens and Mediterranean olives topped with chunks of lamb and feta cheese. The first bite of well-seasoned, juicy meat had me combing the salad for more crusty chunks. Kibbe ($8) were little fried beef footballs, beef with bulgur wheat for the shell, more seasoned beef with pinenuts inside – delicious but verging on dry.
Don't-miss dishes included a kofta roll ($9), grilled torpedoes of beef and onion rolled in pita bread with parsley, lettuce, tomatoes and lemony tahini or garlic mayonnaise. The balance of crusty meat to fillings and bread made it a satisfying sandwich.
Just as good were a Lebanese take on pastelillos ($9), four fried hand pies that were smaller than the standard Puerto Rican versions. But the seasoned ground beef and American cheese filing was notably juicier, and dunked in the ramekin of garlic aioli, it became a consensus favorite.
By the end of the meal, long after I could justify eating more, I was still dipping French fries in that aioli, savoring its richness and bite. Share it with those you love. Because if they don’t get the same level of garlic on their breath, they might not kiss you for some time.
A juice bar offers smoothies and combination juices ($4.50), which we tried with mixed results. A fruit smoothie brought refreshing melon flavor with cantaloupe and honeydew in addition to the usual strawberry and banana. An Almaza Bliss juice tasted mostly of cucumber, not the grape and carrot that was in there somewhere.
Desserts, displayed in a cooler, included cakes ($7) and a thick rosewater-scented, raisin-less rice pudding ($3.50) that was delicious. I knew that the fluorescent green pistachio cake was artificially flavored when I bought it, but lost my taste for it after a couple of bites.
The Twix cheesecake, though, held my attention with chocolate mousse, caramel flavor and ganache. It would have made sweet music with the powerful, unsweetened Lebanese coffee ($3) that arrived in a brass pourer, if I hadn't downed it at the beginning of the meal.
Almaza Grill should be a contender for the getting-dinner-on-the-way-home crowd. Its food is sturdy enough to transport well to the table. Yes, it costs more than the supermarket miracle bird, but after you're done eating, you might be reminded that sometimes you get what you pay for.
Almaza Grill – 7 plates (out of 10)
Where: 9370 Transit Road, East Amherst (276-8080)
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday.
Prices: Appetizers, $7-$14; pita rolls, $8.50-$9.50; entrees, $14.95-$17.96; chicken with sides, $9-$42.
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Gluten-free: Many options on clearly marked menu.