Brunch I Actually Enjoyed: ilili Restaurant
As a born and bred native New Yorker, I don’t exactly understand the concept of brunch. Brunch to me is basically another way to sneak in more alcohol into your system even though you had your fill of poison the night (or two, if you started on Friday) before and eat somewhat bland food during the late morning to the late afternoon in hopes to get rid of hangover or induce yourself to another drunken stupor. Since I don’t drink that much and I care more about the food, I haven’t encounter brunch food that I truly enjoyed. Until now.
ilili started their brunch menu recently and perusing through the menu it does look enticing. I brought my parents along since they don’t mind trying something new.
Entering this restaurant, you walk into the narrow corridor, greeted by the hostess, you’d notice this restaurant is cavernous, covered in warm wood with patterns of squares, with a few fitted with small mirrors, and has a posh lounge outfitted in silk and velvet and a sleek bar. Upstairs and the surrounding rooms beyond the main dining room were private event spaces.
The dining room was spacious with lots of light pouring in as they opened their front doors to the streets of Manhattan.
My parents and I started with our choice of poison: pomegranate cava for them and I had the grapefruit bellini. Both drinks were great aperitifs – tart and refreshing with a little bit of effervescence, as my bellini has a touch of floral notes.
The lamb dip sandwich was delicious. Shavings of tender, roasted lamb smothered between a soft, house made hoagie roll. When you dip it in the lamb au jus, it’s an explosion of flavors and seasonings of what that lamb was roasting in, as well as soften the bread a little bit but not to the point of dissolving.
The braised lamb shank sandwich was another spectrum of flavors in every bite. The supple chunks of lamb shank mixed with fried eggplants, piquillo peppers, sprinkling of mint and the bun slathered in labne, was sandwich nirvana. The bun was soft yet had enough structure to hold up the filling. The components added up to a mixture of earthiness, smokiness, creaminess, and a touch of tartness from the labne. The lamb was less gamier here than the lamb dip sandwich above.
The truffled eggs benedict was arguably something closest to the brunch foods one would find. Ilili’s version was still quite superb from the decadent flecks of black truffle found within the hollandaise sauce and the perfectly cooked, über yolky poached egg sitting on top of a toasted bun, and topped with two strips of bacon. The sides, the arugula salad and hash brown dumplings, were well made and very good accompaniments. My mom thoroughly enjoyed it.
The side of house made veal bacon with caraway sounded unusual on the menu that I had to order it. When I took a bite, the strangest thought crossed my mind and I said to my parents out loud, “it tastes strangely familiar.” When my mom tried one, she said it tastes like Chinese bacon (腊肉, pronounced in Cantonese, lap yook). My mom joked that if they did serve this bacon with a bowl of steaming hot, white rice all would be bliss.
The grilled beets with Aleppo honey butter was a very simple dish but it’s minimalistic approach was superb. The beets were cooked perfectly with a drizzling of honey butter subtly played on the natural sweetness of the beets.
The duck magret kebabs served with Romaine lettuce, garlic puree, and pitas spiced with zaatar and paprika were great. The duck breast was cooked to the requested cooked medium-rare and you must eat this kebab with the pita. Without the pita, it’ll taste like a normal grilled duck breast.
The scallop siya dieh was another very good dish. Two large diver scallops, seared to a perfect crust with a tinge of pale pink in the middle, with a mound of creamy, briny, squid ink risotto, topped with a pile of crispy fried onions.
The Kibbeh Nayeh Beirutieh is one of the two steak tartares served here. We chose the purist route to taste the quality of the beef used and this was no doubt an exquisite one. The tartare was rich, luscious and incredibly beefy in flavor. No salt was in here, only a whisp of spicy heat. The raw onions and jalapeño peppers were crunchy, refreshing add-ons to the earthy tartare.
As you might be aware now, I love veal sweetbreads (besides uni (also known as sea urchin) and foie gras, in the savory food category). Chef Massoud’s version was to deep fry these creamy offal bits and serve in little lettuce cups filled with garlic puree and top it with Lebanese pickles. If sweetbreads weren’t such a pain to cook at home, I would definitely make this for entertaining parties. They’re dainty finger food that packs a punch on flavor and texture.
If you’re still with me on this lengthy, food-filled meal, we topped off this feast with their signature dessert, the Knafe Bil Jibneh, that is made to order (we have to wait about 15 minutes when you request for one). It’s an upside down cheese tart sprinkled with crushed pistachios, served with crisp, sesame pitas. The tart is made with two cow’s milk cheeses (I tried asking Chef Massoud which type but he’s keeping it a secret) and the crust was crisp and crumbly like a tart crust without the sugar. It’s barely sweet, bordering savory when eaten alone until you pour on the intense orange blossom sugar syrup.
How one should eat this dessert is to take the sesame pita, tear it into two, stuff it with a piece of the cheese tart and pour a touch of orange blossom syrup. It should be really nutty from the toasted sesame seeds and the pistachio, a bit of crunchy-chewiness from the pita and the crust and gooey creaminess from the warm cheeses with a floral orange kick from the syrup. If anything, this was the dessert worth eating.
In all, ilili is serving a great brunch. The brunch prix fixe (their menu here) is very reasonable in terms of pricing (a two drinks – alcoholic and non-alcoholic – and two courses for $25) and portion sizes weren’t tiny at all. Chef Phillipe Massoud brings his Lebanese flair into traditional American brunch food, making it complex with spices and textures.
I have finally found my answer after all of these years of searching for atypical brunch food.