Dimmed lighting, a smiley hostess... A corridor facing the bar and welcoming area, a main dining hall and another cozier space... Welcome to Ilili, the famous, world renowned fine dining Lebanese restaurant in New York.
Famous by name and reputation, Ilili is the place of choice for a Lebanese craving some fine Lebanese food or a native wanting to discover the real flavors of our culture. Lebanese with a different approach, Ilili manages to give you a starred restaurant feel while serving conventional Lebanese cuisine. The first impression is indeed breathtaking as the experience starts.
The place is interesting, a bit dim, but full of class and finesse. It's a corridor where the bar is takes you to the main dining area under a high ceiling with a view of the first floor. Follow the corridors to another space down below the first floor with a low ceiling for a more intimate dining experience. Light wood enchants the space that's not Lebanese at all, more of a high-end place to please the American clientele of busy New York.
The tables are well decorated with a full set of cutlery and a candle which helped me take a couple of pictures of the menu.
Don't miss the restrooms: each is individual, with mirrors, sofas to relax on and a different kind of music, this space has to be visited.
It's a Lebanese fine dining experience with a little twist. A hummus with American flavors, a duck shawarma, kale added to fattouch and many others. We were approached by the waitress as help is indeed needed on your first visit.
- The bread has a special feel to it, lightly aromatic and fluffy. A thin homemade bread with a certain finesse as you grab it, approach it to your nose and bite into it.
- The hummus is "Americanized". It feels light and airy, lemony and fresh with the chickpea flavor almost indistinguishable, so the Americans will be more accepting. It's not a sandwich hummus or close to the one we have at Al Halabi in Beirut, but surely one I loved. It's the Michelin kind of hummus. The best part is its premium temperature; cold but not too cold, just right to make you say wow.
- The kale fattouch: How impressive to see a salad that's superbly seasoned without it being soaked in juice. A fresh kale salad with thinly sliced radish and tomatoes topped with a generous portion of bread toasted to perfection and the seasoning, the extreme seasoning, the touch of uniqueness. Lightly lemony, a bit of olive oil, but with large bits of crispy sumac and salt. Crunchy toast, crispy sumac, fresh greens, green bell peppers and juicy tomatoes. Again, an upscaled version of a conventional salad.
- Brussel sprouts: Might be a best seller, but bizarre for me. An innovative and creative approach to Brussel sprouts, but not an exceptional taste I would crave. Grapes cut in half, sprouts cut in half and walnuts all together mixed with fig jam and mint yogurt. Warm and tender tiny pieces of lettuce and grapes for the fruitiness and a strong but enjoyable sweetness added by the figs. Dark colors with arrays of white, a bit unappetizing... Again I say, it's too bizarre for me.
- Duck and chicken shawarma: That's an award winning dish. Two wraps served like a temaki made of thin pita bread that's not so thin to be normal Lebanese bread, stuffed with tender duck meat, juicy chicken, crispy lettuce, subtle green onions and some fig jam that makes all the difference. I felt the garlic that's not too prominent and doesn't hurt your fragile buds. That's something not to miss for sure.
- Tabbouleh: Exotic! Fresh vegetables shredded to minimal size, bathing in a strong lemony juice. Shredded a bit too much, making them feel like a purée, but strongly flavorful making you forget that little detail. This tabbouleh feels of the finesse and the exotic touch it has, making it easy and enjoyable to eat by Lebanese and non-Lebanese. Loved it!
- Fried Kebbeh: Four pieces served on an oval plate with four round kebbeh. A thin envelope that's a bit chewy and not crunchy enough, filled with a generous portion of fried meat and pine nuts with onions. The filling needs more flavor and the spices overwhelm the blended meat. I would also remove some pine nuts which add too much crunch to the heart of the kebbeh. Locals love it, but I've had better.
And now for dessert:
- A rectangular plate with three separate sections. The sponge candy, the main cake and dulce de leche ice cream. A super crunchy cookie, addictive cake and its biscuit button, a dark chocolate heart and crispy salted pistachio. The ice cream and its salty touch is exceptional, the light and airy biscuit bottom and the caramel decorating the plate from side to side. That's the work of an artist, an innovator and fine chef. Hats off!
- Red velvet mouhallabiya: Please don't eat it after the Ilili candy because you won't appreciate its flavors. But this cup stuffed with a cream bottom, a sponge cake, mouhallabiya with gelatin on top is not a dessert for the apprentice. A connoisseur's dessert for the adventurers, a new innovative take on our mouhallabiya, a local dessert everyone knows and surely appreciates. The raspberry lychee panna cotta, the jellies on top, without forgetting the red velvet Oreo cookies that come on the side. Those cookies are really delicious indeed, the light crunch of those red velvet biscuits filled with Oreo cream.
ilili Restaurant in NYC was awarded the International Star Diamond Award, making ilili the first Lebanese restaurant in the world to receive the honor. You'll understand why after your first visit. Ilili is indeed something Lebanese cuisine needs and should be proud of.
About Chef Philippe Massoud: Born in Lebanon, Chef Philippe Massoud emigrated to the USA in 1986. He is credited with pushing the envelope of Lebanese cuisine and has created some of the most unique dishes, like his signature Pecan Karabij dessert, savory Katayef pancakes and Duck Shawarma with figs, among many others.
It's a restaurant one should visit in New York.