As an Arab I find Middle Eastern or Arabic cuisine served in the West to be a little in duplicitous territory. Perhaps there’s an element of that sentiment to almost anyone who belongs to a culture, nation, or region that warrants its own cuisine. There always seems to be an inevitable sort of entitled cynicism that will always challenge a dish’s authenticity.
When first exposed to Ilili (“tell me” in Arabic), and its haute twist on Lebanese cuisine, I was hardly charmed. Middle Eastern food in general does not fuse well with other kitchens. Perhaps that notion stems from the cuisine’s expectations to never digress to anything but the authentic. Ilili challenges this and with good intentions. Nonetheless, I must assert before I go on, that Lobster Hommus is blasphemous no matter what.
A successful attempt to fuse Middle Eastern cuisine with the non-traditional; Duck Shawerma is made of rotisserie magret, fig, green onion, and garlic whip. It makes for quite the appetizer. Served in a pita-like envelope, wrapped and propped in a cone-like contraption, it retained that meaty, beautifully seasoned flavor that transports you to the shawerma stalls in downtown Amman.
Pomegranate spangled Baba Ghanouj stays true to its classic simple stature, remaining a no frills, delicious and silky, smokey eggplant purée. Kusa Bi Laban is artfully made, a modification to the typically stuffed zucchini variety. In this rendition, zucchini spaghetti is macerated in yogurt, lamb, garlic, and mint.
Pushing the envelope, I opted for something just as adventurous as the duck starter but perhaps a little less defining of the Arab kitchen. Arnab Bi Bitinjaan, hardly resonated with me as typically Middle Eastern yet all its components were. A bodacious date glazed rabbit leg nested on a bed of eggplant was cooked to release the most caramelized of flavors, thanks to the oomph, I’m sure, that the date glaze provided. Chopped fresh beans were also served alongside a chilled tomato compote.
A truly outstanding moment took place when we finally decided on dessert. The Labné Cheesecake Napoleon was a clever fusion of east and west. Frankly, filo dough sandwiched and stacked with a rose water Labné cream cheese filling could not have said Middle Eastern with a twist any better. Baklava or Kinaffe just seemed too humdrum at this point. Excitingly, the dish was served amongst candied strawberries and the most peppery of granitas.
236 5th Ave (between 27th St & 28th St)
New York, NY 10001