During my meeting and interview recently with Kamal Mouzawak, I was introduced to Ilili Restaurant Chef/Owner, Philippe Massoud. Philippe was roasting a whole lamb on a sidewalk on 5th Avenue for a food fair in The Flatiron district, not far from his 27th street restaurant. Kamal and I tried bites of several different dishes, and with Kamal telling me that IIili is one of New York's best Lebanese restaurants, I wanted to go try it.
Recently, I took my wife and visiting brother there for lunch. The restaurant is spacious, and features a dining room that uses lots of glass and wood. On this unusually hot autumn afternoon, the space wasn't quite full. Apparently, they are ususally packed solid - the proof being we couldn't get a reservation the previous Saturday for dinner.
Our waiter was helpful, offering tips on his own menu favorites. The truth is we had already determined to share a mixture of mezze dishes - the small samplings that are typical in that part of the world. We also ordered a rose from the Bekka Valley. The dishes were not just flavorful but surprising. My favorite dish was bone marrow. Roasted, it was served with a sour cherry tabouleh. As Kemal had told me, Lebanese food is not just a street food concept. It's refined and full of fresh ideas I would want to use in my own cooking.
Some of the dishes were certainly familiar (e.g. falafael) but presented with wonderful panache. And with flavors that were nuanced and simultaneously very satisfying. Take the house specialty of brussel sprouts with fig puree, walnuts and yogurt. Words fail to capture the exquisite pleasure of this dish. Pita was freshly baked and was a perfect way to use as a utensil and to swab the deliciously cinnamon perfumed meatballs and the silken kibbe. My I-phone snaps don't do it justice....
This was only part of what we ordered, and believe me, it was filling. My brother invited me to DBGB's, (Daniel Bouloud's new place) but I couldn't even get my mind to tell my stomach to make some room! I hope to find some time to speak with Philippe soon and visit his fabulous restaurant, again. Just to sample lots more great food, and this time I'll make sure to enjoy some arak to cleanse the palate.