Many years ago, in a simpler time, my youngest child read “The Red Pyramid,” part of the “Kane Chronicles” by Rick Riordan. It’s a fantasy series that pits Egyptian gods against plucky teen wizards, seasoned with glimpses of far-off lands.
What’s sahlab? she asked. The book describes it as a warm, sweet winter drink with vanilla, cinnamon and coconut. Turns out it’s traditionally made with orchid root flour, whipped into a frothy beverage renowned for its ethereal fluffiness, a sort of Tom & Jerry of the Levant. Minus the booze, of course, the Ottoman Empire being officially dry.
Orchid flour being quite dear in the United States, cooks here usually make it with cornstarch, like the packet of instant sahlab that I tracked down at Buffalo Fresh, the Arabic supermarket on Genesee Street. We both shrugged at the disappointingly bland result.
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So imagine my delight when I found sahlab on a restaurant menu in Buffalo, all these years later. It augured well, a message from ancient gods to venture on. As it turned out, Amira’s Kitchen, run by a grandmother from Jerusalem, is making some tasty magic in Riverside.
It’s a spare no-nonsense space with seating at tables or a counter, decorated with hand-painted pottery vessels, silver-plated camels, and a platter depicting the Dome of the Rock, the Islamic holy place in the Old City.
Starters worth noting include mini-manakeesh, flaky griddled breads topped with olive oil and za’atar ($12 for 10), a dry spice mix including thyme, sesame seeds and puckery sumac that crisps aromatically when heated. There’s also versions in mild cheese ($13/10), beef-onion-parsley ($14/10), or a combination platter thereof ($15/9).
Falafel plate ($8) with refreshing turnip pickles, dill cucumbers and fresh vegetables along with capable chickpea fritters, for one of the better traditional vegan plates in town. In the mujadara plate ($12), Amira’s Kitchen presents one of the great vegan feasts of the Levant, found nowhere else in town. This Palestinian version offers seasoned rice and lentil pilaf, topped with onions caramelized into jammy onion candy.
The big three of Lebanese meze – tabouli, parsley, tomato and bulgur wheat salad; hummus, chickpea puree with sesame paste; and babaganoush, with roasted eggplant instead of chickpeas – were vibrant versions. Notably crispy french fries arrived tossed in salt and za’atar.
Arabian salata at Amira’s is the usual Jerusalem salad – chopped cucumbers, tomatoes, onions and parsley, in olive oil and lemon, plus a dollop of the ground sesame paste called tahini. That adds a rich nuttiness, enriching it without involving animals.
Her Syrian-style kibbie ($9) is among the best I’ve met in town. This beloved Middle Eastern appetizer offers allspice-scented ground beef, sautéed onions and pine nuts encased in a fried crust of beef pounded with wheat. Crisp stout exterior yields to lush interior, if the cook knows what they’re doing, and gets to do it right. Check out Riverside’s entry for a textbook version.
Lamb kabob salad ($16) was a steal for the generous helping of tender lamb chunks grilled with a whisper of smoke but still pink inside, over a robust salad, tomatoes, cucumbers, Kalamata olives and feta, with your choice of dressing. (I would suggest tahini. When in Jerusalem, and so on.) The beef kefta ($19), featuring seasoned grilled sausagelike links, gets a bed of rice with fried almonds and vermicelli.
For all the Middle Eastern delights in Amira’s Kitchen, the meat of the order, so to speak, is the rotisserie chicken. You can certainly pay less for a gummy bird next to the candy rack at the supermarket. Treat yourself to a slightly larger chicken that is marinated, cooked and served so on-point crispy that skin must be the first course. Tender meat encourages hands-on eating, with pieces dabbed in garlic mayonnaise or green jalapeño-level-spicy herbal citrus tonic.
A half chicken with two sides ($17) makes a fine dinner for two people who aren’t ravenous, or one who is. The whole chicken with two sides ($22) and a chicken and a half with four large sides ($50) is good for a tableful of hungry mouths.
The mint lemonade ($5) was refreshingly aromatic, and there are fruit smoothies ($5), too. But that sahlab ($5) called, and I answered and lived happily ever after. Milk, sweetened with vanilla and sugar, scented with orange blossom water and thickened with cornstarch and ground almonds, and coconut, is a lovely sipper on a cool evening.
The standard rules for tiny restaurants apply here. Call first if you’re going to be sad if they’re out of something. Also call if you’re going to bring a bunch of people, to warn her, and possibly reserve a table.
Amira Khalil isn’t a sorceress, just an excellent cook sending out dishes she knows by heart. To steal a lick from science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke: To the uninitiated, any sufficiently advanced cooking is indistinguishable from magic.
894 Tonawanda St., 716-262-0013
Hours: 11:30 am to 9 pm Wednesday through Friday, noon to 9 pm Saturday, noon to 8 pm Sunday and 11:30 am to 9 pm Monday. Closed Tuesday.
Prices: appetizers, $5-$14; plates, $12-$25.
Atmosphere: low murmur of TV.
Gluten-free options: salads, falafel, hummus.
Photos: Explore rotisserie chicken and Lebanese cuisine at Amira’s Kitchen
Kebabs and tawook
A relaxed atmosphere
A reminder ofJerusalem
Something for everyone
Once upon a time, my youngest child read The Amulet of Samarkand, part of the Bartimaeus trilogy, a juvenile fantasy series well-seasoned with specks of reality.
What’s sahlab? she asked.