On Sunday , my wife and I celebrated our 40th wedding anniversary and our family treated us to dinner at the avant-garde Middle Eastern restaurant Ilili. Sunday evening was cold , damp and drizzly and it wasn’t very pleasant driving to New York City in the winter dark. However , all was forgotten when we entered the restaurant .
Ilili has a strange layout. The narrow entry leads into a very long room with a bar to the right, in back , Beyond it are the restrooms . A door in the wall to the left leads to a similarly elongated dining area with seating for about a hundred diners . The whole restaurant space feels like a large room which has been cut in half lengthwise. There may be more seating elsewhere but exactly where it is remains a mystery to me .
The dining room ,as well as the entry/bar, has mirrored walls and initially , it feels like one is dining in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles.One soon gets used to it though , particularly after the food arrives and there is no more time to look at the surroundings . Before I concentrated on the food , I did notice that the pattern of the cubbyholed walls was replicated in the open ceiling with its framework of wooden beams through which hung the bare lightbulbs ; it made for a pleasing amber glow that bathed the dining room .
Ilili bills itself as contemporary Lebanese but it could as well have called itself Middle Eartern or Mediterranean . The dishes have Turkish , Greek, Egyptian , and Persian influences with an occasional nod to Asia. I would term it avant garde rather than fusion , but however you label it , the food is good , very good. The menu is divided between the traditional ( Hommus , Baba Ghannouj , Tabbouleh , Fattoush , Moussaka , Labne and Shawarma) and the contemporary . Since we had dined at Istanbul , a very good Turkish restaurant in North Brunswick, NJ the week before we decided to forgo the traditional and stick to the contemporary , eclectic side of the menu.
When we dine out , whenever possible , we order family style and share the dishes so as to sample as much of the menu as we can. One of the things I liked about Ilili’s menu is that most of it comes as small plates , ideal for sharing . Between the six of us we ordered ten different small plates , some of them doubles. The first dish we tried , Katayef & Veal Bacon was probably the best . The slices of meat were paired with pickles and peppers and swerved in small purses ( like mini pitas but softer and pillowy). Excellent. Other winners were the Kebab Kerez ( Lamb-beef meatballs in a sweet-sour cherry sauce with kataifi and scallions) ,Duck Shawarma ( Nicely crisped duck and chicken breasts in a fig purée with a side of garlic whip), Mekanek ( sauteed lamb sausage with lemon and pine nuts ), Black Iron Shrimp ( Large grilled shrimp speckled with spices , served with jalapeño , garlic and cilantro), Melted Haloumi Cheese over sliced zucchini with Cherry tomatoes and Mint, and Shishitos à la Plancha ( Grilled Japanese shisito peppers with lemon and sumac). Other dishes we ordered were Chicken livers with a Pomegranate sauce & lemon ( My wife said they were excellent) and Bone Marrow ( Large beef shin bones split sown the middle and roasted till they were piping hot , served with a sour cherry tabbouleh and pita pillows. The last was my idea and , while I’m not sorry I ordered them , there was precious little to eat and at $ 19 , it was expensive and not worth the price . The only other criticism I have is that they could have been a little more generous with the Haloumi cheese. Every other dish was very good and I’d have no hesitation in ordering it again except that……
There are so many other dishes on the Ilili menu that I’d like to try. I wonder what the Tuna Belly with Avocado mousse and Barberry Chutney tastes like . Or the Grilled Octopus with Cauliflower and Pine nuts. Or Phoenician Fries flavored with Sumac and parsley.Another option might be to go for the Mezza Royale Platter ( $ 139 , 13 mezes) .
The main plates , many of them meant to be shared by two diners , also look very interesting but I prefer sticking with the small plates . To see the complete menu go to www.ililinyc.com .
After the assorted little dishes , we were not much in the mood for dessert but still tried four of them , family style of course. They were all pretty good but the one I liked the best was the Pistachio Financier. Service at Illili is very good and dining there was a great experience . We will go back .
Ilili 235 Fifth Avenue (between 27th and 28th Street) , NY , NY 10001. Phone : ( 212) 683 – 2929.