The plaza space near Madison Square Park has been vied for by many a contender, but ilili Box prevailed. There’s good reason for their victory: this upscale fast-food outpost of the nearby Lebanese eatery ilili serves food that’s as creative and culturally engaging as it is delicious.
The menu approaches Middle Eastern fast food classics (think falafel and shawarma), but with a twist that speaks to the multiculturalism of New York City fusion gastronomy. The falafel, for instance, comes three ways. There’s the Beiruti, which incorporates classic Lebanese flavors like mint, tahini, and pickled turnips, while the Korean and the Mexican lend their own cuisine’s characteristics to the sandwich (kimchee/scallion/basil and garlic/cilantro/jalapeno, respectively.)
The menu gets even more exciting when you consider the use of duck and lamb. The traditional lamb shoulder shawarma is beautifully paired with roasted tomatoes, parsley, sumac, and tahini, but the duck shawarma is an extremely successful innovation that is worth trying. Accompanied by ilili's signature fig garlic whip, the spit-roasted duck is deliciously tender without being overwhelmingly fatty. The same could be said for the fabulous duck pastrami with wasabi eggplant mayo (perhaps our favorite item on the menu), which pays homage to the NYC culinary canon with panache.
Though ilili Box is meant to be casual take-out and sandwiches are certainly the focal point of the menu, the sides are also interesting and delicious. Some, like the Brussels sprouts with grapes, fig jam, sherry vinegar, walnuts, and yogurt, read more like small plates than like fast-food side orders.
ilili Box embodies the attention to detail and the passion both for heritage and for creative interpretation that define Chef Philippe Massoud. His self-stated mission has always been to revive an ancient cuisine--his ancestral cuisine--and to re-invent and revive it in order to bring it to people who had not yet tasted it "as it should be."
Cooking and food have been intricately tied to Massoud's understanding of home throughout his life. He started his culinary journey at the age of eight: in the kitchen of the hotel that was opened by his grandfather, he fell in love with Lebanese food. The kitchen soon became a neccesary shelter and reprieve: when Massoud's childhood home was bombed out during the Lebanese civil war, his family moved into the hotel in the hopes of seeking shelter for the duration of the war. Massoud describes his early experiences with cooking as "a haven of sanity in a land of insanity. Beirut was going up in flames around us, and the hotel became an oasis of peaceful living." Despite all this, the oasis was eventually not enough. Hotels became a target for violence and looting (so much so that the war was sometimes colloquially refered to as the "War of Hotels"), and Massoud's parents decided to send him to live with relatives in Scarsdale, NY to attend high school. In Scarsdale, he acculturated to life around him and the world of the average American teenager. Home, however, was never too far away: near the end of his Freshman year, Massoud discovered that his father had been killed. This only strengthened his resolve to make a life in culinary arts and hospitality, in order to carry on his family's legacy.
Another inspiration for Massoud's work was what he considered the extremely poor representation of Middle Eastern food in the United States. Upon encountering what passed for American hummus and pita ("unholy assaults against the taste buds"), Massoud traveled back to the Middle East and apprenticed in the best Lebanese kitchens (including Burj al Hamman, one of Lebanon's most highly regarded resturaunts), as well as kitchens in Europe which excelled at representing authentic Middle Eastern food to the Western palate (such as Noura and Diwan, in Paris). Meanwhile, he developed a keen appreciation for both Mediterranean and Japanese food, which broadened his palate and lent him the tools to interpret and innovate Lebanese cuisine in a way that both honored tradition and elaborated upon it.
ilili, the 300-seat resturaunt Massoud opened in 2007, is emblematic of his studious, comprehensive, and passionate approach to food. The name, which means "tell me" in Arabic, is fitting: the menu draws on the knowledge the Chef has amassed throughout his life and his career. Family legacy is also still an important theme at ilili: Massoud's brother, Alexander, is his co-owner.
ilili has been very successful. Despite initial skepticism about the Flatiron location, it has become a foodie destination with an elite clientelle that often includes executives, celebrities, and even royalty. ilili Box, while still being a delightful representation of Massoud's signature style, makes his work more accessible to the public (both financially and physically, as well as culinarily). It is also the realization of one of his longtime dreams: he had always thought about opening a fast-food joint, but never had the occasion until now.
Housed in a repurposed shipping container, ilili Box offers casual dining options. Patrons can order to go, or they can utilize the outdoor seating on the plaza (where they can also take advantage of ilili's wine and beer license and sip on a Lagunitas IPA or a Paumanok Festival Chardonay). If you're in the Flatiron area, it's great for a quick take-away or a leisurely lunch (either on the plaza or in Madison Square Park), but we'd argue that the food alone is worth a visit. The Box is set to open on Wednesday, September 18th.