Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Upscale Lebanese at ilili

Before I get to the review, I just want to congratulate Aubrey Laine for winning the Sarabeth's Preserves giveaway for Mission: Food's Second Blogiversary! Enjoy your prize!

236 5th Ave
(between 27th St & 28th St)
New York, NY 10001
(212) 683-2929

ilili was on my wish list of New York City restaurants for quite some time. I recently met up with Christine from Fresh Local and Best for an upscale Lebanese dinner here (she also kindly shared some of the pictures she took at dinner for me to include on the blog, so some are hers and some are mine). We decided to try the $42 prix fixe dinner, which allowed each of us to select 2 appetizers, 1 entrée, and a dessert. That meant tons of sharing! Before even making our selections, we were served a plate of crackers with labne (strained yogurt), za'atar, and olives.

Crackers with Labne (Strained Yogurt), Za'atar, and Olives

Between the two of us we had 4 appetizers to try out. Our definite favorite was the Veal Sweetbreads dish. Plump sweetbreads are breaded and fried just like fried chicken and served in a lettuce cup with garlic whip and kabiss (pickles). This was the standout dish from the night... it was well-balanced from it's texture to its flavors. We highly recommend it.

Veal Sweetbreads in Lettuce Cups with Garlic Whip and Kabiss $15 (à la carte price)

Our next favorite was the Sweet Cheese, a baked Halloumi topped with winter vegetables, apples, and sumac. This gooey starter also had some great textural elements with the addition of crunchy julienned apples on top. Fresh (and super puffy) pita bread was a great vessel for enjoying this baked cheese.

Sweet Cheese with Winter Vegetables, Apples, and Sumac $14 (à la carte price)

Pita Bread

We also enjoyed the Fennel Cured Sardines with piquillo peppers, garlic, fresh fennel, that is served with grilled bread. The sardines were not overly fishy, and although the peppers and fennel added nice bright flavors to the dish, it was a touch on the oily side.

Fennel Cured Sardines with Piquillo Peppers, Garlic, and Grilled Bread $12 (à la carte price)

Our final appetizer was the Marinated Octopus and Calamari Salad with carrot tahini, sweet pickled cucumber and nigella seeds. The octopus and calamari were quite tender with a nice crunch from the pickles. Overall, Christine found the dish to be a little sweet for her taste, but I thought the flavors worked well together.

Marinated Octopus and Calamari Salad with Carrot Tahini, Pickled Cucumbers, and Nigella Seeds $15 (à la carte price)

For our entrées we both ordered red meat dishes. Christine went with beef, the Date Braised Beef with cashew "couscous," cucumber, and rose petals to be exact. It was beautifully tender with a delicate sweetness from the dates, a concept I'd love to borrow in my own kitchen sometime.

Date Braised Beef with Cashew "Couscous," Cucumber, and Rose Petals $22 (à la carte price)

My main course was the Lamb Kebab, which consists of marinated lamb loin and cherry tomatoes served on a spiced pita along with a side of garlic whip and a light arugula salad. The lamb was not only seasoned just right, but was cooked to perfection, moist bite after bite. The grilled cherry tomatoes added a touch of sweet and juicy acidity. The pita itself was crunchy. I'm not sure if that was a result of it cooling down and drying out, but it made me think of it more as a Lebanese taco :) The garlic whip is a garlic-lovers' dream, a creamy garlic infusion. It reminded me a bit of the famous Zankou Chicken garlic sauce (one of the greatest inventions of mankind). When I finished my lamb, I wanted to slather the remaining sauce all over myself (to ward off vampires, of course). I restrained myself. Don't worry.

Lamb Kebab - Marinated Lamb Loin, Cherry Tomatoes, and Spiced Pita with Garlic Whip and Arugula Salad $18/small $36/large (à la carte price)

For dessert I couldn't resist the ilili Candy Bar, a decadent layered treat of chocolate kataifi and chocolate ganache served with pistachio and fig caramel and finished table side with warm chocolate sauce. The chocolate kataifi layer had a great crunchy texture while the ganache was nice and smooth. While this is definitely a rich dessert, it's a great option for any chocolate-lover. I recommend it.

ilili Candy Bar - Chocolate Kataifi Crunch, Chocolate Ganache, Pistachio and Fig Caramel, Warm Chocolate Sauce $10 (à la carte price)

Christine tried the Apricot Lebanese Ice Cream, which had a lovely floral flavor in addition to apricot. I found the texture reminiscent of Lokum (or Turkish Delight), it was almost toothsome, definitely a unique trait in ice cream. I imagine it is made with a similar method or similar ingredients. I'd love to research this more. We both really enjoyed this ice cream!

Lebanese Ice Cream - Apricot $9 (à la carte price for 3 scoops)

I recommend ilili to anyone who enjoys fine dining and Middle Eastern cuisine. The cuisine at ilili is definitely a lovely variation to the traditional dishes one would find at a typical hole-in-the-wall Middle Eastern or Lebanese restaurant. The flavors were spot on, the proteins were cooked perfectly, and not a single "boring" bite of food touched our lips.


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