New York City's Ilili
The game-changing, market-restaurant hybrid, Eataly has gotten a lot of attention, but the focus on the neighborhood’s dining options reminded me of another Flatiron joint that deserves mention: Ilili, Phillippe Massoud’s still-swank Mediterranean venture.
To start, there’s hommus, of course, and labne, a tangy strained yogurt— textbook examples of whipped and silky smooth, respectively. Tear a piece of the thin, warm puffed pita and attack unabashedly between sips of the signature Not-So Bloody Martini (or for something more floral, the From Manhattan to Beirut). The mouhamara, a vibrant, nutty-textured mixture made from sun-dried pepper, walnuts, and pomegranate molasses comes highly recommended. With it you should order the leafy, parsley-heavy burghul Tabbouleh to add to the mix. All together it makes for wonderful grazing.
Pita pillows reappear miniaturized with roasted bone marrow. Slit one open and slip in a spoonful of the hot, melting fat— it’s like a do-it-yourself Lebanese take on a soup dumpling.
There’s more construct-your-own flavor combinations to be had with the kibbeh nayeh jnubieh: steak tartare with burghul, cumin, marjoram, onion, mint. A meat patty with a paste-like texture glistens with olive oil— it’s meant to be mixed with grainy pearls of burghul and slices of jalapeño and onion. It’s a unique medley of textures. Also unique are the veal sweetbreads, crispy fried and served in lettuce cups with garlic whip and Lebanese pickles. They’re the poppable version you’d want to have on game night.
Chef Massoud also demonstrates a strong command of bold, abrasive flavors. Blackened chunks of chicken liver arrive in a cast-iron dish, not-so-subtly dressed in tart, tangy sauce of lemon, pomegranate molasses, and sumac. The excellent warm eggplant shares a similar profile, this time employing tamarind molasses, and adding the sweetness of blistered tomatoes. Still, having these two dishes in one course could easily overwhelm, and in such a case, the nicely seared lamb chops with za’atar salsa verde and roasted tomatoes are more simple and straight forward.
For dessert (if you can save room), there’s an important choice to be made. In one corner there’s the uncontested chocolate-lover’s choice: the rich Ilili candy bar. In the other, the Ashta, a light, smooth mold of Lebanese clotted cream doused table-side with orange blossom simple syrup.