236 Fifth Ave. (betw. 27th & 28th Sts.)
In a city where falafel and shawarma are among the most common street foods, and where hummus is available in any grocery store, it seems odd that New Yorkers haven’t latched on to the cuisine of the Middle East in more upscale settings. The folks at Ilili are making a strong bid to change that, bringing the flavors of Lebanon off of the streets and into the city’s dining culture with mostly admirable success—at a price.
A location along a stretch of Fifth Avenue that quiets down as soon as the office dwellers clear out probably doesn’t help business, but it does provide for a decidedly relaxed atmosphere; though busy inside, the restaurant never feels intrusively crowded. In fact, it was easy to lose track of time in the dining area; its red and tan hues somehow soaked up the Manhattan buzz and translated it into a relaxing warmth—maybe the sky-high walls had something to do with it. The satisfying sangria ($9 for a glass, $45 for a pitcher) helped make me forget the city outside, though the greedy carafes seemed to enjoy keeping the apples and berries for themselves, leaving my glass forlornly fruitless. If you like your wine without produce, there is a wide selection to choose from, including many Lebanese options. And, happily, there is arak—an anise-flavored liquor—by the glass ($13) and the bottle ($140).
As with any Mediterranean restaurant, the mezze (or appetizer) options—a majority of which are available in larger portions—were overwhelming in number, though a few are mere tastings rather than snacks. Serving size isn’t the only issue, though, as some of the dishes are particularly pricey. I love a smooth and creamy hummus (and here it is the smoothest), but not enough to pay $8 for a serving. And why can one get lamb or shrimp on their hummus at the bar, but only plain hummus is listed as an option on the regular menu? Falafel also costs $8, tabbouleh and mouhamara will run you $10, and the brussel sprouts go for $13. Our server promised the latter would amaze, but the sour nuggets tossed with tart grapes and a scant amount of wonderful fig puree failed to convert these non-believers.
Seafood fared much better than the vegetables, with bright and lemony marinated sardines ($9) available in the bar and lounge area; delicate slices of octopus ($13) stood up surprisingly well to the prominent citrus dousing they received; black cod ($17) shared space with caramelized fennel that was, for once, not cloyingly sweet. The dish was well balanced and satisfying, though you could spend the same amount of cash and get an entire entrée at many other fine restaurants.
Lamb ribs (half rack for $18) might have been my favorite dish here: The bite from the scallions, the tang of the strawberries, the sweetness of the molasses and the hot cumin chaser made wonderful partners for the succulent meat. The other contender for top honors was baked kashkaval (a tangy sheep’s milk cheese) with duck egg and truffles ($12). It was decadent and worth every calorie and penny.
Familiar choices like the tender, grass-fed beef shwarma ($13) and the ground beef kefta ($12 mezze, $24 larger) were well seasoned, with none of the heavy-handed use of allspice, cloves or cumin that you may be accustomed to dealing with in lesser renditions. Grilled options were moist and flavorful without being over-charred; the chicken shish ($12/$24) and the fiery beef kebabs ($17/$24) were better than any found on the strip of great Astoria restaurants known as Little Egypt. The problem is these Eastern Mediterranean dishes have been adopted by New Yorkers into our common comfort-food lexicon, and it’s hard to swallow shelling out big bucks for straightforward renditions of everyday foods, no matter how well they are executed.
Even if you’ve gorged yourself on the variety of savory choices, grab a Turkish coffee ($5) and forge on for the wonderful desserts ($12). A napoleon of shredded phyllo dough and achta—a creamy cheese, quite similar to clotted cream—was heavenly and light, even doused with a liberal amount of simple syrup. The molten chocolate cake was better than your average rendition of this oft-abused dessert, but it was the accompanying honey-date ice cream that enchanted. Order an extra scoop or, if you insist on sharing, immediately divide the serving in half to avoid potential spoon fights.
While the standards satisfy, it’s off the beaten path that Ilili provides true bang for your buck. Get the dishes you’ve never had or even heard of, and save the shawarma for the street cart.