Hotly anticipated Lebanese restaurant ilili finally opened this week at the District Wharf. After surviving a difficult pandemic and keeping his Manhattan flagship afloat, restaurateur Philippe Massoud is ready to return to Washington and share his nearly 20 years of experience pleasing the fickle palettes of New Yorkers.
Massoud, who opened Neyla in Georgetown in 1999 and ran it until 2005, comes from a legendary family of Lebanese hoteliers who defined glamor and good taste in Beirut for nearly 100 years.
When Massoud first opened ilili in Manhattan in the mid-2000s, the New York Times called it “atmospherically the grandest excursion into Middle Eastern cooking that New York has seen.” The restaurant at the District Wharf shows that Massoud’s ambitions have not been tempered with time.
The space that ilili moved into has been completely revamped – anyone who visited the old eatery that formerly occupied the building will (thankfully) not recognize it. What used to be a cold, fragmented and self-consciously “modern” interior has been discarded in favor of a joyful, free-flowing riot of color and trees and fountains. Embroidered chairs play counterpoint to geometric tiles, and on warm days the tall windows facing the water are open. Bird cages in the dining room and a rustic wood ceiling over the bar together radiate the sensibility of a courtyard garden.
Like the New York ilili, the Wharf restaurant menu features a nouvelle blend of Lebanese and Mediterranean. Diners can stick with the extensive range of hot and cold mezza, or select from entrees. The must-haves? Definitely the Brussels sprouts – spruced up with grapes, fig jam, walnuts, and mint yogurt – which have a cult following in New York and make their appearance on the D.C. menu, as well as the kibbeh nayeh, a tartare-style minced raw steak mixed with bulgur wheat and served with onion, mint and jalapeno. The ilili candybar, featuring a sesame crunch and served with milk chocolate sorbet, speaks the global language of chocolate decadence, but the baklava is hard to pass up.
Arak – the high-proof Mediterranean liquor made from grapes and aniseed – is given top-billing on the ilili beverage menu, and guests are encouraged to sip it in the traditional way: with water added, which turns the drink a translucent milky-white. ilili presents Arak as a beverage to cleanse the taste buds and refresh the palate for each new dish.
That might be a lot of Arak, though, and I’d recommend some restraint. If you don’t drink your way through all the Arak on offer, you’ll be able to tour the cocktail menu, which draws on Mediterranean flavors to update old classics. Start with the spicy sumac margarita (Rejón tequila, lime, pomegranate, mint) before moving on to the floral Beirut to Manhattan (Old Forester bourbon, orange-infused Arak, Roulot apricot liqueur, Lebanese syrup).
The Arak and cocktails are mesmerizing (and strong), but try not to overlook the wine list, which includes by-the-glass options from the Bekaa Valley (in Eastern Lebanon), one of the oldest winemaking regions in the world where almost 90 percent of the country’s wine is produced.
ilili is a place to linger, graze, people-watch and enjoy. Is it a throwback to the care-free sociability of pre-pandemic times, or the herald of a new, post-pandemic joie de vivre? Maybe it’s both.
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