236 5th Ave
New York, NY 10001
Mike, Justin and I went to Ilili on a mission: to find a place that does kibbe nayeh better than M's mom, whose Lebanese dishes are the best in the world, if you want to go by M's version of things. Did we succeed? Thankfully for the sake of familial harmony, we did not -- but we came dangerously close. Ilili does a lovely kibbe nayeh and other dishes, too.
All three of us did the evening tasting menu, which amounted to quite a lot of food to share.*
Many of the appetizers had an acidic component to them from lemon juice and pomegranate molasses, which actually went extremely well with the more-acidic-than-usual, light, young Louis Latour Burgundy. It's not a wine I'd ordinarily like, but we ordered it at our waitress's suggestion and it was a good recommendation.
My favorite mezze, the chicken livers, was a perfect balance of salty, sour (lemon, pomegranate molasses) and sweet (pom molasses, again), with delectably caramelized / crisp edges. Even my liver-hating SO professed love for the dish before I fessed up to what it was. The warm eggplant -- disks thinly sliced from long, narrow eggplants -- was also incredible, again with a nice balance of sweet (tomato, tamarind molasses), salty and sour (tamarind molasses). M loved his kibbe nayeh, though it was a variation we weren't familiar with, made sans allspice and with more heat than M's northern Lebanese mother uses.
Other appetizers (listed below) were all competently prepared, but not as noteworthy.
Believe it or not, things actually got even better in the next course. My harissa-roasted hamachi main, brilliantly prepared with deep umami flavors, was truly a highlight. It was nicely seared on the outside and perfectly rare, inside and bathed in an incredible butter sauce that perhaps reflects Lebanon's history as a French colony. Alongside the fish were lightly cooked cucumber and grapefruit, both of which added a lovely brightness and welcome contrast to the rich sauce. This was a perfect dish if I've ever had one, perfectly balanced in terms of textures and flavors, and perfectly executed.
M's duck kebabs were deliciously rare and fairly straightforward in peparation. The basterma topping my SO's burger transformed an otherwise solid, but not remarkable, lamb burger into something heavenly.
The ashta clotted cream was a true-to-form traditional dessert, homey, yet delicate with the addition of orange blossom essence. Lebanese ice cream, which none of us had ever tried, was gummy (chewy) and matched the descriptions I've read of Turkish ice cream. I'm not sure I loved the texture -- the boys adored it -- but the pistachio flavor in ours was concentrated, deep and very rich. Wonderful. The candy bar was nice, but too heavy for me after this meal and I'm very glad that someone else had primary responsibility for it!
* Full listing of dishes we tried:
- Mekanek (lamb sausage sautéed w/ olive oil lemon, pine nuts)
- Warm Eggplant (tomato, tamarind molasses, scallions)
- Kibbeh Nayeh Jnubieh (steak tartar, burghul, cumin, marjoram onion, mint)
- Fasoulia (cannellini beans, lemon, garlic)
- Fattoush (Lebanese garden salad toasted pita, sumac lemon vinaigrette)
- Chicken Livers (lemon, pomegranate molasses, sumac)
- Duck Magret Kebab (Magret duck breast, lettuce, garlic whip, spiced pita)
- Lamb Burger (basterma, kashkaval, arugula)
- Harissa Marinated Hamachi (roasted w/ harissa, cucumber, grapefruit, butter sauce)
- Pistachio Lebanese ice cream
- Ashta (traditional Lebanese clotted cream w/ orange blossom simple syrup, bananas)
- Ilili Candy Bar (chocolate kataifi crunch, chocolate ganache pistachio and fig caramel, table side finish w/ warm chocolate sauce)