Lebanese: ilili

Eating Out



I recently had my first taste of Lebanese food at ilili, with an eating buddy who was familiar with this cuisine.  I love eating with “experts” in cuisine types – I just sit back and let them order.  We ordered several dishes to share, and each was delicious.  We first started with beverages:

I ordered a virgin Fresh Meadow with mint, cucumber and ginger while eating buddy ordered the Poison Sumac Margarita, with tequila, orange liqueur, pomegranate juice, lime, and sumac.  They were both refreshing.  I’ve been favoring more herb-y vegetable-type drinks lately, so the cucumber hit the spot.

We started with complimentary flatbread crackers and labne (strained yogurt cheese), drizzled with olive oil and garnished with olives.  I hadn’t had labne before – it is tangy, creamy and goes well with the savory crackers.

Our first dish was hoummus, which is not only good but good for you. The taste was enhanced by strong olive oil and what I believe was sumac.

And what accompanied the hoummus? Soft, pillowy pita, warm from the oven:

A far cry from the tough, dry pita pockets from my local grocery store, these pita were light and airy.  I ate them quickly so they wouldn’t get cold, and the waiter replaced the basket.  So I ate them again.  And again.  Dangerous game.

We also had artichokes with red finger chili, mint and labne tahini to start (first picture).  I love artichoke, and this preparation showcased the tangy flavor of this vegetable.  There was a slight sour flavor that I couldn’t quite place – not unpleasant, but a bit unexpected.

Eating buddy ordered us the lamb ribs with burned strawberries, scallions a la plancha and cumin aleppo broth:

Lamb is generally not my meat of choice, but this dish was tender and not gamey at all.  The strawberries added a sweet and summery touch to the hearty ribs.

We also had the beef shwarma. Similar to a pita or soft taco of Greek or Mexican cuisine, shwarma consists of seasoned meat with vegetables (usually onions and tomatoes) and wrapped in pita.  It was delicious, and I especially liked that it reminded me of an ice cream cone – one-track mind, that’s me.

For our fish dish, we ordered the Branzino a la Plancha with tahini pepper sauce.  I admit that I was a little full by this time, but I had to give this fragrant dish a try.

I loved that the fish was so thinly filleted, allowing for a crispy skin and tender and juicy meat.  The tahini pepper sauce added a tangy counterpoint to the savory skin.

Ok, so I know I had mentioned I was full by this point, but I ALWAYS have room for dessert. Always. It’s a little scary, actually.  For a sweet ending, we had the Kanafe:

Usually consisting of finely shredded phyllo with Nabulsi cheese, and drizzled with rosewater syrup, this traditional dish is my eating buddy’s absolute favorite dessert – when prepared correctly.  Unfortunately, this apparently was not the best preparation.  Me, not knowing any better, still gobbled it up.  However I’m now tempted to find a traditional recipe to make it myself – an upcoming post, perhaps?

Overall, I had a delicious and satisfying meal at ilili.  I love trying new cuisines, and I was not disappointed.  Sampling foods that are new to me, such as labne and sumac, is always satisfying, and I look forward to learning more about other dishes from this part of the world!

236 5th Ave. (at 27th St.)

What new cuisine should I try next?

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  • Reply
    August 25, 2010 at 1:52 pm

    I love labne! Love it! I'm half-Lebanese, so I grew up eating it. When I went to college, I tried to make my own using the plain yogurt in the dorm cafeteria. People thought I was weird for dumping plain yogurt on my rice. Then the same thing happened to my cousin when she lived in the dorms. Haha. Now everyone is with the program!

    I haven't heard of that dessert before – I probably would have gobbled it up too 🙂

  • Reply
    August 25, 2010 at 2:10 pm

    Fun!! We have a lot of Lebanese restaurants in our neighborhood, but ilili looks much fancier than the places around us 🙂

    For a light dinner from a restaurant by us, I order the falafel ball appetizer (I can't get enough of the dill sauce they serve with it!!) and lentil soup…mmm. It's seriously the best!

  • Reply
    August 25, 2010 at 2:10 pm

    Oh and have you had Ethiopian? If not, I suggest that for your next cuisine to try.

  • Reply
    August 25, 2010 at 2:12 pm

    ooh that lamb dish looks amazing!

  • Reply
    Kristin ~ Bien Living Design
    August 25, 2010 at 2:29 pm

    I LOVE Lebanese food – the fresh taste, spices, olive oil, PITA, falafel…yum. Now I am hungry – this place looks great!

  • Reply
    megan marie
    August 25, 2010 at 3:24 pm

    That puffy pita bread looks so so so good. I have never seen pita like that before… need to find it!

  • Reply
    August 25, 2010 at 4:21 pm

    Yum, great to know there are other Lebanese food fans out there!

    Laura, I tried Ethiopian once years ago; I think it's time for another go at it!

  • Reply
    Try Anything Once Terri
    August 25, 2010 at 4:43 pm

    I have been meaning to try this place. As usual, your pics are fabulous. 🙂 I have some recs for Ethiopian if you want them.

  • Reply
    August 25, 2010 at 5:42 pm

    This looks amazing! I'll have to give it a shot. I've had some Lebanese in the past and loved it 🙂

  • Reply
    August 25, 2010 at 6:58 pm

    I love Ilili! Their beef burger and bone marrow dishes were to die for~too bad it's not on the current menu! I need to go back when they return.

  • Reply
    August 25, 2010 at 8:15 pm

    Terri, I would LOVE some Ethiopian restaurant suggestions! 🙂

  • Reply
    August 26, 2010 at 12:31 am

    Oh, I love lebanese food. Especially that hummus and pita bread. OMG. So good!!

  • Reply
    August 26, 2010 at 1:45 am

    There is a great Lebanese place in NOLA. Gah, I want to go there now…too bad I'm an hour away and well, they are probably closed anyway. 🙂

  • Reply
    M and C
    August 26, 2010 at 3:48 am

    I love lebanese food. I wish we had some good places in Seattle. I second Ethiopian. I love it. I also really love Afghan food.

  • Reply
    August 26, 2010 at 12:31 pm

    Hi there!

    Great post!

    I just wanted to say that the knafe issue is not one of being prepared correctly or not. ilili doesn't present itself as a traditional Lebanese restaurant. It's considered to be one of (if not the) world's most contemporary Leb/Med restaurant anywhere. So when a Lebanese person comes in and says the Koussa they served during restaurant week isn't prepared correctly because it's "deconstructed" koussa, it's like saying the cod isn't prepared correctly at NOBU or any other restaurant that doesn't present it's cuisine as traditional 🙂

    The knafe at ilili is the chef's take on what he considers to be (and I quote) "hands down the best dessert on the planet".

    I'd love to invite you and your friend to come in again for dessert to sample a traditional knafe so we can add a footnote to an otherwise (seemingly) great meal 🙂 I'll send you my email now.

  • Reply
    August 26, 2010 at 1:17 pm

    Hi Yasmina!

    Thanks for stopping by my blog. I'd love to sample ilili's preparation of a traditional knafe. I enjoyed the "contemporary" version and would be interested to see how the traditional version differs. I'll keep an eye out for your email. 🙂

  • Reply
    September 15, 2010 at 10:52 am

    FYI – Yasmina, never heard from you. Wondering if your offer still stands or if you just wanted to post your comment.

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