Haute Eating: 10 Questions for ilili’s chef/owner Philippe Massoud

by Tracey Ceurvels

Chef/restaurateur Philippe Massoud, formerly of renowned restaurant Neyla in Washington, D.C., has made his mark in New York City’s culinary scene with his innovative restaurant ilili. At ilili, Massoud has taken traditional Lebanese cuisine and given it a modern interpretation, with acclaimed results.

The dinner menu includes the familiar (fattoush, hommos, baba gannouj) as well as dishes with a creative twist (bone marrow with sour cherry tabbouleh, harissa marinated hamachi, fried skate with almond garlic puree). For dessert, Massoud’s methodology is refreshingly the same: Lebanese beignets are served with orange blossom simple syrup and the unique ilili candy bar includes chocolate kaitafi crunch and pistachio and fig caramels.

By melding old and new in a setting that certainly matches the cuisine (sophisticated and modern with many Lebanese touches), Massoud has created a veritable Haute Lebanese dining experience.

Lamb chops with zaatar salsa verde

Haute Living: What’s new at ilili?
Philippe Massoud: We’re very excited about our new brunch; you can’t be a New York restaurant and not offer it. Mezza and brunch go hand in hand, it’s a very sociable way to start your weekend. The dishes we’ve put together are one of a kind; they’re really an homage to the Mediterranean life which is what ilili is all about. We’re offering a $25 prix fixe menu that includes a Pomegranate Bellini or Cava—or you can order a la carte.

HL: What are some of your favorite dishes at your restaurant?
PM: Tabbouleh, the perfect anti oxidant revitalizing salad. Kibbeh Naye Jnoubieh, the southern version of Lebanese steak tartar, which is best experienced with a tall chilled glass of Arak. Creamy Veal Sweat Breads with a bit of crunch and garlic. Black Iron Shrimp inspired by my visits to Spain, a perfect dip in the ocean. Hommus, well that one speaks for itself.

HL: Where do you like to dine when you’re not working?
PM: I love Japanese cuisine; it’s often a source of inspiration to me when developing ideas for ilili. I also indulge in Spanish foods whenever possible. Spain is my second home away from home. I like to sample many restaurants, hoping to find the right one, of course when time permits considering I don’t have much of it.

HL: What’s your ideal meal?
PM: Intelligent company, good wine, good food, and a server that knows how to pace the table, alas many restaurants are more preoccupied by turning tables rather than servicing their guests.

HL: Your favorite special occasion spot?
PM: No one particular spot, every occasion has a unique spot, but if I had to name one, that I go to regularly, it would be Matsuri.

HL: What’s your favorite NYC neighborhood, and why?
PM: I like the quieter neighborhoods: West Village, Chelsea, parts of the Upper West or Upper East Side. Really NYC has some beautiful neighborhoods that allow you to disconnect from the insanity that the city offers. There’s nothing like walking in the West Village on a beautiful spring or fall day.

HL: What do you like to do on your days off?
PM: Days off? I’m not familiar with that term. Our business is quite demanding, however I must admit that lately I’ve been trying to enjoy more of a balance between work and life. But it’s a work in progress, so ask me again next year.

HL: Your favorite vacation destination?
PM: Salted water, sandy beaches, great seafood, and joyful people that know how to take big bites out of life, is where I like to vacation. Spain is usually a preferred first.

HL: What’s your most memorable meal?
PM: I was 14 or 15, and my uncle took me to Le Bernardin. Woody Allen was sitting one table away, and I was blown away by every second of the meal and service.

HL: What are your five favorite ingredients?
PM: Olive Oil; thyme; lemon; sumac; octopus; and lamb

ilili is located at 236 Fifth Avenue; 212-683-2929

To reach Tracey Ceurvels, visit her blog, The Busy Hedonist or email her: tracey@thebusyhedonist.com