I love it when restauranteurs take a chance—bringing something truly new to New York, rather than just copying what everyone else is doing.
But there is a line between risk-taking and recklessness, and I almost wonder if the owners of Ilili have crossed it. The massive 5,000-square-foot space accommodates 330 people in multiple bars and dining rooms on two levels. The high-rent neighborhood (Fifth Avenue between 27th and 28th Streets) is dead to evening foot traffic, and Lebanese cuisine has never been especially popular in New York.
It won’t be easy to keep all of those seats occupied. Shortly after it opened in late 2007, Steve Cuozzo of the Post filed a blistering review. They were apparently busy enough that they couldn’t be bothered to give Cuozzo a walk-in table. The Sun’s Paul Adams enjoyed himself, mainly because he didn’t expect much.
An Eater deathwatch may be premature, but on a Friday night in January we found it dead at 6:30 p.m., and only around half-full by the time we left, around 8:00. That’s not good enough. The high-concept design didn’t come cheap, and the owners surely have a huge investment to recoup.
I haven’t figured out what the name means, but it has attracted its share of ridicule. Eater.com readers voted it the worst name of Fall 2007, beating out Bobo, Kurve, and Say.
The menu is a mixture of small and medium-sized “tapas-style” plates in various categories, without the usual appetizer–entrée distinction. There is no clue or suggestion about how much to order, which leaves the guest vulnerable to up-selling—which apparently has been a problem at Ilili. However, we must have had one of the more honest servers: when we chose four dishes to share (which turned out to be plenty), he didn’t try to talk us into a fifth.
Fried Brussels Sprouts
Chef Philippe Massoud comes to New York from Washington, D.C., where he served Mediterranean fare at Nayla. The cuisine is nominally Lebanese, but alongside traditional dishes, like shish kebab and falafel, are ingredients probably not common in Beirut, like foie gras and Kobe beef.
The bread service, which the server called an amuse-bouche, consisted of spicy thin crackers with olives. I loved the goat cheese yogurt spread, but the crackers were over-seasoned.
Our server suggested fried Brussels sprouts ($12), with grapes, a fig puree, walnuts and mint. It is a justly popular dish, but as it came out almost instantly, I strongly suspect it was pre-made, and waiting under a heat lamp. The Brussels sprouts were not quite warm enough.
Our remaining three dishes were delivered all at once. Manti, or Lebanese Pasta ($14; above left), was the best of the lot, with a nice balance of beef, lamb, mint, and yogurt. Mekanek, or Lamb Sausage ($13; above right) was lightly sautéed in olive oil and lemon, but it didn’t have a very lamb-y taste.
The Mixed Grill ($20) offered a Kafta (spiced ground beef with parsley and onion), chicken kebab and beef kebob. With thought it peculiar that the chicken and beef were sliced in threes, on a plate clearly designed for sharing. The beef kebab was the best in this grouping, as the cubes of meat were tender, rare, and not at all over-cooked.
The wine list was over-priced in relation to the rest of the menu, with few bottles below $50. Several Lebanese wines are offered, but we weren’t feeling that adventurous, so we settled on a Crozes-Hermitage right at $50.
Service was generally competent. We appreciated the server’s sensible ordering advice. But we weren’t as happy to have dessert plates dropped suggestively on our table before we’d indicated whether we wanted any (which we didn’t).
If Ilili isn’t quite hitting its stride, one can nevertheless put together an enjoyable meal here, and the prices (except for alcohol) are reasonable.
Ilili (236 Fifth Avenue between 27th & 28th Streets, Flatiron District)