Already the executive chef at the upscale restaurant Ilili, Philippe Massoud opened his newest brainchild on Sept. 18. Serving Lebanese-inspired street food on the go, Ilili Box maintains the quality of Massoud’s flagship restaurant in a less formal atmosphere.
A wide selection of sandwiches and spiced drinks immediately catches the patrons’ attention. The zesty red lemonade ($5), incorporating basil and blood oranges, refreshes the palate in between bites of any dish.
NYU sophomore Christopher Roderick, however, preferred green lemonade, made with mint, ginger and cucumber.
“Cucumber has been a trending vegetable in the health world,” Roderick said. “And I was surprised at how well its subtle green taste complemented a tangy lemon kick.”
The decadent duck shawarma wrap ($14) comes with fig garlic whip, scallions and pomegranate seeds to form a tantalizing sandwich with an occasional explosion of sweetness. A twist on the traditional Mediterranean staple, Korean and Mexican-inspired falafels ($10) are among the aromatic vegetarian delicacies offered.
The dairy-based desserts, such as the clotted cream ashta ($5) with hibiscus and roasted pineapple, leave a light, fragrant aftertaste. Ilili Box also offers gluten-free variations of almost all its dishes.
The kiosk stands in the Flatiron District, near the cross-section of Broadway and 23rd Street. While eating in the square, surrounded by potted flora, the bustle of cars zipping by is forgotten after biting into one of the mouth-watering sandwiches. While it’s perfect for a quick lunch, Ilili Box is a bit pricey for a student budget. But it is definitely worth trying for those in the mood to splurge.
WSN sat down with Chef Massoud for a short Q&A.
Q: How does serving food in a grab-and-go atmosphere differ from serving in the upscale restaurant to which you are accustomed?
A: The beauty of it is that the experience is very linear. There’s just a direct connection from the food being cooked to the food going straight out to the customer. In addition, it’s a lot more playful because a sandwich can be like a permutation. It can evolve into so many different concoctions. Unlike having a composed dish, which is a lot more studied and precise, a sandwich is a lot more playful. But the pressure to execute a delicious bite is still there.
Q: What is your process of experimenting with and creating new dishes?
A: The most important thing is to think of cooking as it you were speaking a language. The more evolved your vocabulary and grammar are, the better you can write, the better you can speak, the more complex poems you can write. Cooking is exactly the same. Your ingredients are your alphabet, your vocabulary is your understanding of those ingredients, and the technique is the grammar. The more you understand what those ingredients can do, how they can mix together, the more complex your creations are. It’s important to stay disciplined within the realm of the category cooking you are cooking in. We cook in eastern Mediterranean cuisine, so we look at all the ingredients from the region, from vegetables to fruits to spices to proteins.
Q: But you’ve also incorporated Mexican and Korean ingredients?
A: That’s more of an homage to my staff. I have a large contingent of Mexican employees and I love their food. In regards to the Korean, some of my people, including my executive assistant, are Korean-Americans. I thought that these were a good play on what would otherwise be a boring, simple falafel. Our objective here was to serve falafel that you could eat on any street in the Middle East, particularly in Beirut. The others are a playful way to say it doesn’t have to be so linear and boxed in.
Q: I understand you moved to the U.S. from Beirut as a teenager, separated from your nuclear family. Did you use cooking as a way to reconnect with your original roots?
A: “When I came here and I tasted the cuisine from Lebanon where I’m originally from, I was disappointed. I didn’t like what I tasted. I thought it could be done better. And my quest to go on this journey started my freshman year at Cornell University. I didn’t finish but that’s where I started and I knew I could make a dent in that market so I started practicing and cooking the cuisine on my own.”
Q: This kiosk is the product of winning a competition organized by the Flatiron/23rd Street Partnership?
A: We put the neighborhood before ourselves and that was always our intention. We wanted to do something that fulfilled the neighborhood’s needs and then we would find a way to make it a successful business. That was the way we approached it. And we offered a decent amount of variety.
Ilili Box is located on the corner of 24th st. and 5th ave. and is open Monday through Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.