There's no question Philippe Massoud can cook. I've sampled evidence at Meatopias (www.meatopia.org) of yore, from juicy grilled lamb shawarma to a two and a half years-ago memorable carrot and tahini salad with black sesame. So I was expecting great things from Ilili, his midtown Mediterranean hotspot that's no newcomer to New York's restaurant scene. Still, I hadn't been there personally, so I took a frigid winter night as opportunity to get the whole picture. The restaurant itself was surprisingly gigantic. For some reason, I had fathomed it a more boutique atmosphere. Instead I found myself within New York's Spice Market/Buddhakan/ Matsuri/(Carmine's?) of Middle Eastern cuisine.
The giant space is riddled with tables and compartmentalized rooms; little off-set nooks have more private tables, and a walled-off room adjacent from the bustling center scene offer even more. A mezzanine floats above, allowing even more seating (Note: on a busy night such as it was, the restaurant looked none so austere as these photos, stolen from their website. It was as laden with bodies, coats and noise as were the plates with sauce and spice.) I'm guessing that the sheer volume of potential diners taxes the quality of the food that is put out. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to afford much more attention to detail dealing with these kinds of numbers. We were seated in the back of the back, at a wobbly, shadowy-cursed little table with a prime view of the shuttle-system of food-laden and emptied plates, and easy access to the restrooms a stone's throw further. It had to be the worst table in the restaurant, but I'll not let that influence me too much. I am used to enjoying better seating arrangements, but it's not the point for which I visit a restaurant. The point is the food, and I wish I could be more complimentary about how it panned out.
Ilili is touted as modern Lebanese with Mediterranean accents, which describes it to a tee. It's not authentic anything, and it can be wildly tasty, but in a sort of indulgent, careless way. I suppose other people eat at dodgy Chinese joints or even splurge on a burger-and-fries for this kind of satisfaction. I just don't normally tend to frequent places like that, so for me, this (expensively) fills that niche. Everything is powerfully seasoned, rigorously cooked, lavishly sauced, highly spiced, generously salted, and for the most part, indulgently tasty. It is just that, given Massoud's pedigree and capability, I expected something a little more nuanced- a little more thoughtful. Truth be told, it felt a little sloppy.
But like Jean-Georges who lets the precision quality of most of his establishments peter out as they gain in popularity, so has Ilili (if it ever began as such). The joint was bumpin'. The restaurant is packed with people packed into tables packed with food. And some of it is quite good, in a hedonistic way. We wanted to order smattering of several dishes, as I inferred was the point to themezze-style menu. But the servings were too large to warrant ordering so wantonly (as was the table too small to handle any more than three plates at a time), unless a doggie bag, or excessive amounts of wasted food, are viable alternative. Or if you're coming here with a group. A large group. In fact, if you come here, I highly recommend you do just that; enlisting the troops is the only way to really successfully navigate this menu. We began with Arnabeet Mekle , uber-roasted cauliflower with chili, mint and labne tahini. The latter is slathered thickly on the plate, a finger's width deep and drizzled with oil. I take this like I'd take French fries- a couple of florets are drool-worthy. A whole plate is Tums-worthy. The infamous brussels
sprouts ("You went to Ilili? Did you get the brussels sprouts? OMG!") read the same; there was little brussel-sprouty about them. There was, on the other hand, a lot salty, creamy, walnutty, and fruity about them. Nothing shy in flavor, but barely retaining its membership to the vegetable family. The majority of dishes follow this suit: copious amounts of labne, hummous, tahini are ubiquitous. Beef and lamb have a strong showing as well, from tartares to kebabs to meatballs, sausages, steaks and chops. We couldn't miss the highly touted Lobster Hummous, however, although it again reiterated the same flavors we incurred over and over. Beautiful nodes of meaty lobster and a few token mushrooms are somewhat lost in a rich hummous, made even unnecessarily richer with a luxurious daub ofbeurre monte'. If there are more spartan dishes lurking somewhere in the menu, we didn't encounter them.
After this, we really were at the point of no return.... so we ordered dessert. This was mostly just out of curiosity (we hadn't even finished the entrees), to see if perhaps a lighter turn was taken for finishing things up (plus, I was tempted by the "liquorish" in the Kalabij Halab). Turned out tobe thick, shortbread-style pistachio biscuits (four of them) perfumed with orange peel and served with a bowl of licorice-scented soft marshmallow. Because exactly what we needed at this point was more creamy, gooey, sugary decadence to nail shut the coffin. There really are no "light" desserts, except for a sorbet selection, but even with that they make you choose three.
Not that any of this is catergorically bad; it just wasn't the cleaner, truer Middle Eastern that I was expecting. This is no Mediterranean-diet Mediterranean. But judging from the popularity of the place, it is entirely impervious to any of my criticisms. Even I wouldn't not go back, if I could figure out some of the less sauced-up options, or else had an occasion with a big enough group to join forces with. In either case, I'd wear a looser belt.
236 5th Ave
(Btwn 27th & 28th St)
Phone: (212) 683-2929