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I've never had a good answer to the question, "What's your favorite Lebanese restaurant in Manhattan," or to the related puzzle, "Why aren't there any great Lebanese restaurants in the city?" But it's nice to know that New Yorkers who didn't grow up eating Lebanese food at home are as perplexed as I am by the absence of a decent showcase for the cuisine here.
This could be the end of an era. Ilili, the city's first ambitious Lebanese restaurant in years, opens today. Ilili's chef-owner, Philippe Massoud, is a veteran of the Washington, D.C., Lebanese restaurant Neyla, owned by Bechara Nammour, one of Beirut's top restaurateurs. He's also the nephew of Charles Massoud, owner of the lauded Paumanok Vineyards on Long Island's North Fork. At the launch party last night, Philippe Massoud brought out one of the best party hors d'oeuvres I've had all year: fried brussels sprouts with mint, grape, roasted walnut and fig puree, a very loose but phenomenally delicious interpretation of Lebanon's classic fried cauliflowers. I also loved his mini-skewers of chargrilled beef kebab and grilled pita; his small, fluffy pita rounds topped with hummus; and the Poison Sumac cocktail, made with Patron Silver, Grand Marnier, Cointreau, fresh pomegranate, and a dash of zingy sumac.
If the food at the party was any indication, Massoud's cooking retains the intense flavors of Lebanese cuisine, adding smart and surprising tweaks here and there without muddling the taste. I'm eager to try the rest of the menu (even if some of it is more "Mediterranean," broadly defined, than Lebanese). And I'm curious to see how the space works out: The massive, two-room, burgundy-cedar-copper-colored restaurant—which thankfully doesn't have a belly dancer—can hold 290 people total in the dining room, lounge, private rooms and various nooks. That's a lot of seats to fill—especially for a concept that's new to New York City (if not to London, Paris, Montreal, and lots of other places). But if Ilili takes off with New Yorkers and restaurant-addicted Lebanese expats (the kind who love to spend hours lounging, eating, listening to music, and calling all their friends to come join), I may finally be able to answer that first question above—and put the second one to rest.