Would you take your dad to a restaurant that blasts only the finest in Top 40 hits (that Barbra Streisand song) and has a clientele that resembles Pascha circa 1998? Cut me some slack. It was Dad’s idea to come to ilili.
My apologies in advance for the low resolution of these photos; the lighting in the restaurant cast a shadow over everything and I did not bring a DSLR to dinner.
Despite some of the less redeeming qualities of the ambiance and atmosphere, the food is surprisingly good. My Lebanese friends would say the food is traditional Lebanese. My Greek friends will say that the menu features many dishes their grandmothers would make. And my Turkish friends would vehemently disagree, saying that the Greeks steal everything from the Turks. In order to appease everyone, let’s agree that the food is traditional Mediterranean?
Because we were in the mood to share and to try many different items from the menu, we ordered the Mezze Royale. This particular spread includes 5 cold mezze and 5 hot mezze. Our waiter suggested ordering an entree in addition to the Mezze Royale in order to make sure we were satiated. Umm, okay. Granted we were the heaviest folks in the restaurant, we were definitely full after the round of cold mezze.
From the selection of cold mezze, my favorites were the Baba Gahannouj (it was much spicier than the simple hommus also served) and the Tabbouleh (the combination of mint and parsley was delightful). The grape leaves were also executed perfectly and did not disappoint.
We were granted a few minutes to allow our stomachs to meditate on the wonderful first round and out came the hot mezze. After cracking a joke about whether the recipe for Phoenician fries was written in cuneiform (yeah, I descend from a long line of nerds), we dug in. In addition to the perfectly spiced Phoenician fries, I also loved the mekanek (delightfully spiced lamb sausage) and falafel. I didn’t think it could get better than my East Village student staple falafel, but it does. The perfectly crisp exterior, the delicious yogurt-tahini sauce – both make a world of difference.
For dessert we shared apricot Lebanese ice cream and baklava. The ice cream was much creamier than expected, but the apricot flavor is very pronounced. It triggered memories of travels where we would gorge ourself on apricots and dates. Two varieties of baklava were brought out – pistachio and cashew. Both were much lighter on honey and had more delicate pastry than the typical baklava.
It’s always surprising that when “simple” dishes are prepared well and thoughtfully, they can go from “good” to “outstanding.” This was exactly the case at ilili.
Price: The Mezze Royale is $139, but will easily feed 4-5 people.