Turkish, Armenian and French influences all come into play in the Lebanese kitchen, infusing the dishes with richness and complex flavor. "The time has come for Lebanese cuisine to take its place among the world's greatest," believes Philippe Massoud, executive chef-owner of ilili, a stylish New York City restaurant that is "a laboratory for authentic cooking." The cuisine is naturally on trend with its healthy focus on small plates and sharing.
While ilili's menu features Middle Eastern classics, Massoud infuses them with a playfulness. For example, baba ghannouj, the roasted eggplant spread, is blended with Lebanese tahini and pomegranate and offered straight up as a "mezze" or starter. But it's also spiced with wasabi and served with Sashimi of Kona Kampachi ($13). Chicken Livers, prepared in Lebanese homes with a broken butter sauce, are elevated at ilili with a French-style emulsification and accompanied with lemon, pomegranate molasses and sumac ($8).
New York City's Al Diwan takes a slightly more conventional yet still contemporary approach. Signatures include Fried Kebbeh, the classic dish of minced lamb mixed with bulgur, onions and pine nuts; Fattoush, a Lebanese salad of crisp pita bread tossed with cucumbers, tomatoes and mint; and Samkey Harra, a traditional whole roasted sea bass in Lebanese Hot Sauce composed of garlic, lemon, fresh green and red peppers and ground red pepper. "We focus on the quality of the food rather than fancy presentation," says owner Jamal Kawwa. "Perfecting the plate is more important than decorating the plate."
Essential ingredients are relatively simple to source. "There's a huge Middle Eastern community in the U.S. and many suppliers," Kawwa adds. He relies on Al Noury, a distributor that specializes in Middle Eastern foods. While some of the products are interchangeable—grape leaves from Greece and Syrian peppers can be used to make authentic Lebanese dishes—others are more distinctive. Lebanese tahini, for example, is lighter in color and texture and sets Lebanese hommus apart from its Mediterranean cousins.
Most of the fresh meats, fish and vegetables, as well as dried fruits, olives and other staples used in Lebanese cuisine can be sourced from American distributors. Cuts of lamb, yogurt and fresh herbs might be a bit different, but restaurant operators usually can adapt. Sometimes the choices are better. At ilili, the beef and lamb are prime, grass-fed meats and softer lamb tenderloin stands in for the chewier leg for kebabs. Other times, compromises have to be made. "I can't find the varieties of purslane and thyme I want," laments Massoud, "but I'm now partnering up with growers to supply these."
Grocery products can be more challenging. There's a lack of variety and consistent quality in the supply chain, says Massoud. He cites zaatar—a distinctive seasoning that shows up in many dishes—as an example. "Sometimes I have to recalibrate recipes because there is no consistency of the product I get." At ilili, items like Lebanese olive oil "with just the right balance of acidic notes," tahini and spices are either imported directly from Lebanon or sourced from purveyor Sahadi Fine Foods in Brooklyn, New York.