By Spencer Bistricer
There are plenty of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean restaurants in the city, and to be honest, the food they serve is often pretty bland: dull hummus, limp tabbouleh, and flatbread that tastes like it came off a supermarket shelf sometime last week. Ilili, in contrast, specializes in Lebanese cuisine and offers the kind of food any Beirut masterchef – or grandmother, for that matter – would be proud to serve.
Instead of dull mounds of dip and mezze that taste more or less the same, Ilili produces a range of fresh, vibrant dishes that layer their flavors to create a complex and satisfying dining experience.
The interior space is dramatic and original, a sign that the dining experience that awaits will challenge expectations. My companion and I found ourselves seated at a large table for two, about midway within the wood paneled main dining room. We began, on our waiter’s suggestion, with some of the Mezza, a range of small dishes meant to be shared. As I said, I am not usually a great fan of hummus, but the hommus at Ilili – yes, they spell it with an “o” – left us fighting over the last mouthful. A dish called Hindbeh intrigued us, and we both loved the way the tartness of the dandelion leaves was balanced by the sweetness of caramelized onions. The duck shawarma, the signature dish of the restaurant, did not disappoint. We could easily have eaten one each, and I made a note to order more the next time we return.
It took us a while to order our main courses, as just glancing around the room gave a sense of the wide range of dishes on offer. Eventually, I went for the Golden Tile Fish, a dish that complemented the robust flesh of the fish with lamb bacon and a delicate olive consumé. It was delicious, and one mouthful was enough to expel the envy I’d initially felt when I saw my partner’s Kafta arrive. The Kafta is presented with a flashiness that mimics its flavors: spicy meats, rich ratatouille and a garlic whip that brings the flavors together. It was delicious, another fresh take on a dish that is often predictable and dull.
For dessert, we shared Ashta, a uniquely Lebanese dessert of clotted cream and rose water. To be honest, we couldn’t eat anymore. And for our wine, I recommend the Chateau Musar, Lebanon’s most famous vintage. It resembles French wines at their best and invariably outdoes similarly priced wines from France itself.
236 5th Ave,
New York, NY 10001