Tag Archives: Feta Cheese

Ilili *****

236 5th Ave (corner of West 27 & 5th)
New York, NY 10001


I am the kind of foodie that seeks out hole in the wall restaurants,  loves eating sketchy street foods, and believes that you can get 5-star quality food from a truck. That being said, I also do occasionally enjoy going to hyped up,  “mega restaurants” in the city to determine whether or not they are really as overrated as the NY Times critics claim.  This past weekend I went to Ilili, where chef-owner Philippe Massoud is combining traditional Middle Eastern and modern Mediterranean flavors to create inspired and upscale Lebanese dishes. The atmosphere is nothing short of grandiose with seating for over 300 people, in a bi-level restaurant space that is broken up into multiple cozy lounges and dining nooks.
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My friend Liz and I took our seats in one of these little cubbyholes and began to salivate while reading over the menu. I asked our waitress to recommend the best three dishes on the menu, and without an hesitation at all she replied, “the Chankleesh, the brussel sprouts, and the Ilili candybar dessert.”Her confidence was convincing so we got started with an order of the Chankleesh, which is a creamy feta cheese combined with ripe tomatoes, onions, olive oil, and za’atar spices ($10). It sounds simple and it is, but every single ingredient is top  notch quality and each flavor is perfectly balanced. It was also the first dish to arrive at the table and in my starving state, it was anxiously anticipated and quickly scarfed down. I used the warm and pillowy soft pita to pick up the bits and pieces and tomato that remained on the plate and soak up the remaining oil and za’atar spices.
Warm Pita Breadedited
Finally our cocktails arrived. I ordered the From Beirut with Passion, which is a basil cilantro mint infused vodka with sparkling passion fruit juice. It is served on the rocks and it is the perfect blend of herbal and sweet, without being too fruity.
From Beirut with Passionedited
I preferred it to Liz’s Poison Sumac Margarita with tequila, orange liquor, pomegranate juice, and lime. 
Sumac Margaritaedited
Next to arrive at the table were the Brussel Sprouts with grapes, fig jam, walnuts, and minted yogurt ($14). Almost every table in our nook had an order of these, and I totally understood why after my first forkful–they are the absolute BEST!!  A unique combination of flavors that transform an basic every day veggie into a over the top Lebanese comfort food. So rich and delicious. In fact, chef Massoud posted the recipe on the website (click here for the link!)
Brussel Sproutsedited
Liz is into shrimp so we also split an order of the Black Iron Shrimp with jalapeño, garlic, and cilantro ($15). I thought the shrimp were a bit tough, and would probably opt for a different appetizer next time, as they were nothing special in comparison to rest of our meal.
Shrimps in Garlicedited
For the main entree we shared the Mixed Grill Meat plate for two ($64). We figured this would be the best way sample a variety of meats on the menu, exposing us to the greatest amount of Lebanese classics. The meat plate included chicken shish taouk, kofta lamb kebabs, and lamb chops along with a side of ratatouille and a garlic whip trio, which is a heavenly emulsion of oil and herbs.
Grilled Meat Platteredited
My favorite meat on the plate was by far the lamb kofta which is basically a Lebanese meatball that is rolled into the shape of a sausage link.  The word kofta is derived from the Persian word ‘Kufteh’ meaning mashed, which represents the ground meat (oftentimes lamb) that is then mixed with cumin, coriander, parsley, mint, onion, and garlic. I ate a lot of kofta while traveling in Croatia and these were just as authentic and delicious as I can remember.
Grilled Meat Platter3edited
The lamb chop was cooked to perfection and seasoned straight through. I was cleaning the bone shamelessly, holding the chop between my two fingers. The chicken was juicy and tender but not nearly as flavorful as either of the lamb dishes.
Grilled Meat Platter2edited
Herbed Oil Emulsionsedited
 Despite my feelings of overwhelming fullness (let’s face it, none of these dishes were light), I had embarked on gluttonous journey that would not be complete without dessert…..and two of them!
We ordered the Ilili Candybar3, which is a chocolate lovers dream plate consisting of rich chocolate ganache, a chocolate Lebanese ice cream with hints of caramel and fig, and a white chocolate sesame sauce with crumbles of pistachio ($12).
Ilili CnadyBar3edited
Ilili is known for this dessert and chocoholic Liz looked like she was having an out of body experience with each bite, but I seemed to prefer the Labne Cheesecakes which were rich, smooth, and creamy ($10).
Overall the meal was one of the best dining experiences of my life from the food to the atmosphere to the service. The service is impeccable by the way. The wait staff knows the menu inside and out, which is incredibly important at ethnic restaurants, and they can help any indecisive dinner arrive at a good ordering decision. Your water glass will never go empty an the delicious pita basket will be refilled continuously throughout the meal. I had no expectations for Ilili because I really hadn’t read any reviews prior to my meal there (very unusual for me….as I normally like to get acquainted with menu pages and yelp reviews before I dine somewhere new), but I left feeling justified with every penny spent. A perfect meal at a reasonable price. I cannot wait to go back!

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Filed under Bars, Brunch, Cocktails, Dessert, International Restaurants, Mediterranean Cuisine, New York Restaurants

Greek Orzo Pasta Salad *****

Greek Orzo Pasta Salad with Tomatoes, Feta, and Kalamata Olives

January 2nd of 2010 is a day that I remember vividly. I was on a train hysterically bawling my eyes out, hard-core fighting with my ex-boyfriend via text messaging (the most popular way for young couples to fight these days!). The whole train was starring at me and I couldn’t pull myself together to quit sobbing, so they endured the sound track of my agonizing heartache for the entire ride from New York to Philly (I personally apologize to every passenger). It was a pretty rough start to what turned out to be a rather rough year, but this year started out completely different and so I’m feeling great about 2011!! I rang in this New Year eating and drinking with the most hospitable and hilarious Greek family that I have ever met…we could title the evening as: “my big fat Greek dinner!”

You see, I’ve been third wheeling it with Ariana and her boyfriend, Harry, the past couple of days, and so when they headed up to Boca Raton for Harry’s family dinner, naturally, I followed! He had given us the disclaimer on each family member before we went and tried to prepare us for what to expect that evening, but I had no idea just how much of a treat I was in for! The three of us show up around 4 O’Clock and it’s just us and his immediate family and grandmother, Yaya (pronounced, Yah-Yah). I recalled from his pep talk earlier that Yaya doesn’t speak English…or so he thought. Turns out that you can learn a lot about your family by watching them interact with non-family members (such as their ability to speak another language…fluently!). Yaya follows Ariana and I outside and strikes up a conversation speaking perfect English to everyone’s amazement. I guess Yaya has selective English, and only “no speak English good” when she wants to. Hey, with age comes wisdom.

Very quickly though people start trickling through the door, and I found myself standing up to greet someone new on 5 minute intervals. This continued for about an hour until the entire family and their plus one date (because everyone brought a friend) was gathered around the table outside. It got so crowded that Harry suggested making a “kid’s table” for anyone under the age of 25. This quickly turned into the drunken table enveloped by a cloud of cigarette smoke—bringing new meaning to the definition of “kids table.” We snacked on fresh mozzarella, sliced tomatoes, salami, cheese, and salmon bites while throwing back beers and red wine over great conversation.

Finally, around 8 O’Clock dinner was served, and what a glorious spread of food it was! There was filet mignon, skirt steak, moussaka, mixed green salad, stuffed grape leaves, stuffed cabbage, twice-baked potatoes, sautéed veggies, and last but not least, my orzo pasta salad! My mother always taught me that you never show up to a dinner party empty handed and so I thought I would contribute a side dish. Given the Greek crowd, I assumed my orzo salad with feta, tomato, and kalamata olives would be a hit….and it was! Even Yaya loved it—she couldn’t believe that a non-Greek made it! (that obviously made my night!) Although I was proud of my pasta salad and everyone seemed to enjoy it, it was clearly outshined by the rest of the food, and rightfully so! I felt so spoiled to have a delicious home cooked Greek dinner. The moussaka was hands down my favorite part of the meal. Greek moussaka is minced meat layered with eggplant and then baked with a cream sauce on top, and this was the best that I have ever tasted. I couldn’t get enough of it! I never in a million years imagined that there could be leftovers at a dinner party with about 20 guests, but we found ourselves having fourth meal around 2 O’Clock in the morning after a night at the Hard Rock and that moussaka was even better the second time around! The cream sauce was light and fluffy and tasted almost like whipped potato on top. Every forkful was divine. I also loved the stuffed grape leaves, which were served hot with gravy. I had never had warmed stuffed grape leaves before, but I loved it and don’t think I’ll enjoy them cold ever again!

The best part of the evening was dessert though, and for reasons that I shall now explain. You see, it is Greek tradition to bake a new year’s cake with a coin inside. The person that then receives the piece with the coin in it is supposed to have very good luck for the entire year! (I’m sure you already see where I’m going with this, but don’t beat me to the good part yet!). So as they are slicing the cake, they are announcing who each piece is for and all of the dinner guest’s names have been called expect for mine, when Harry’s mom says “and this one is for Ariana’s friend….what is her name again?!” Sure enough, I got the coin! I felt kind of bad taking the good luck from a family who didn’t even know my name, but I sure as hell could use some luck so I wasn’t about to give it up! And that is why I am so pumped for 2011, because I found a foil-wrapped dime in my cake! You better believe that anything good that happens this year will be attributed to that coin.

Here is the recipe for my Greek orzo pasta salad, which is adapted from one that I found in a Bon Appetite magazine a few years back (instead of using marjoram, I use a variety of different herbs). This pasta salad is great for dinner parties, tailgates, and picnics because it makes a lot and everyone only takes a little bit!


  • 1 pound of orzo
  • ¼ cup fresh lemon juice
  • 1 ½ teaspoons lemon zest
  • 4 tablespoons chiffonated basil leaves
  • 3 green onions, thinly sliced
  • 4 teaspoons Dijon mustard
  • 1 ½ cups crumbled feta cheese
  • 1 cup pitted kalamata olives, halved
  • ½ cup olive oil
  • 24 ounces grape tomatoes, halved
  • (optional) 1 teaspoon fresh mint leaves, chiffonated


Cook out the orzo in boiling and salted water. Drain. Rinse with cold water and then set aside in mixing bowl.

Whisk together the Dijon mustard, olive oil, lemon zest, and lemon juice in a small bowl. Toss the halved tomatoes with about 3 tablespoons of the vinaigrette and coat the orzo with the remainder. Allow the tomatoes to soak in the vinaigrette for at least an hour so that the flavors develop and then add to the pasta. Add the olives, feta, green onions, basil and mint. Toss to coat and combine. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve or refrigerate.

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