A friend recently dined at ilili and had highly recommended it, especially their prix fixe options ($25 at lunch and $35 at dinner) which includes your choice of two starters, an entree and a dessert. There is an additional charge for one of the lamb courses and also for one of the duck courses. I was curious to check it out to see the difference between Lebanese, Greek and Turkish cuisine. A little research revealed that Lebanese dishes use a lot of garlic and olive oil with the occasional lemon juice. Poultry is the main meat dish and if red meat is used, it is usually lamb.
I wanted to be sure to try their labne, which is similar to a Turkish version of Tzatziki . It’s a blend of strained yogurt, olive oil, mint, and zaatar (a blend of herbs, sesame seeds, and salt). There was no need though, as our server brought it out to the table before taking our order, along with fresh warm bread. Step aside tzatziki, you’ve met your match. If this was easy to find, I’d eat it every day.
For our starters, we ordered warm eggplant, falafel, lahmajeen, and chankleech. The highlight of the four was the eggplant. It was just amazing. It literally tasted like you’d placed it directly onto your plate from the oven. The eggplant was in cut into small pieces and prepared with tomato, tamarind molasses and scallions. There was an interesting contrast between the slight sweetness of the tamarind molasses and the slightly tart, salty flavor of the scallions. The falafel was nothing special. It was extremely basic and I wouldn’t recommend it. I will say that the falafel was not oily, which was nice. However they served us only three falafel balls, so it was hard to split and just not a big dish in general. It was paired with a nice tahini sauce but was still nothing memorable.
My second favorite starter was the chankleech, a fresh mixture of diced cubes of feta cheese, onions and tomatoes seasoned with zataar. They brought us a basket of fresh pita bread along with the starters, and the chankleech was perfect to pair with the pita. The lahmajeen was also excellent. It was almost a thin lamb pizza topped with diced tomatoes and onion. The lamb was in small pieces and very flavorful; the simplicity of the remainder of the dish allowed the flavor to shine through. The portion size was on the larger size so it was a good selection for sharing.
For our main courses, we opted to try their two fish dishes – the dorade and the cod. The dorade was grilled and paired with a fennel orange salad. The fish was bland. The salad was nicely done but the flavor was so strong that the fish was virtually lost. The black cod was slightly better. The fish had a more flavor paired with siya dieh rice (a long grain rice) and tajini. It was a more balanced flavor than the dorade.
For dessert, I tried the ilili Candy Bar, which I’d read was rich and chocolatey — Perfect for me. It had a chocolate kataifi crunch, chocolate ganache, pistachio and fig caramel finished dramatically table side with a warm chocolate sauce. It was every bit as sweet as it sounds. And tasty. It was interesting that they integrated kataifi into the dish. Typically something that’s more of a dessert of itself, it was used as a complement to the chocolate dish. The honey and the phyllo sheet pairing had been smashed into small bits which dusted the top of the chocolate. Quite good. We also tried the homemade Lebanese ice cream in pistachio. This was just a little off. Neither of us could place quite why, but it did not taste like pistachio. The flavor was a bit too salty and tart and the texture of the ice cream was not pleasant — almost grainy and gritty. I’d definitely recommend the chocolate bar over the ice cream.
Overall, I would recommend the starters. That is definitely where Ilili excels. They have an impressive amount of square footage for a restaurant in Manhattan with a very large bar area. I’d recommend a glass of wine and some starters at the bar with friends if you’re up for exploring Lebanese cuisine. The service was excellent, but I’m not sure I will be back again for a full three course dinner.
ilili – 236 5th Avenue (at 27th) – 212-683-2929