Philippe Massoud, the Beirut-born chef who’s opening anticipated Lebanese restaurant Ilili on the Southwest Waterfront this week, proudly describes his hummus as “unadulterated.” His Mediterranean chickpea spread is simply lemon, legumes, and tahini. “There’s no garlic, cumin, or additives,” he says. “It’s Mother Nature doing the work for you.”
That hummus is just one best-seller Massoud is bringing to D.C. from Ilili’s HQ in New York City’s Flatiron District. The opulent import opens in a jewel box-style space located in the heart of the Wharf development on Thursday, October 7, reviving a prime location that has sat empty since Mike Isabella’s French-themed Requin folded in 2018. Other Eastern Mediterranean standards available at the new restaurant (100 District Square SW) include baba ghanoush, tabbouleh, and Beiruiti-style kibbeh nayeh of minced raw steak and burghul (bulgur) that picks up pops of color from onion, mint, and jalapeno. “We’re very well known for it,” Massoud says.
Harder-to-find meze items that Ilili serves include a plate of Brussels sprouts dressed with grapes, fig jam, walnuts, and mint yogurt; hindbeh, a side of cooked dandelion greens with pine nuts and caramelized onion; and riz, a compilation of rice, toasted vermicelli, and mixed nuts.
“It’s the closest you can get without having the ingredients from the terroir,” Massoud says. “That’s why it’s been such a hit with connoisseurs of Lebanese cuisine and the larger American audience of New Yorkers.”
Some of the menu swings a bit more unorthodox. For a surcharge, customers can doctor up their hummus with a blue crab falafel dressed with a little Old Bay, which Massoud says is an homage to the historic Municipal Fish Market nearby. Other D.C.-specific dishes that nod to the riverfront location include a plate of day boat scallops served with parsnip chips, tahini labneh, and grape mostarda. Hamachi comes with nectarine vinaigrette, cucumber, Aleppo chile oil, and sumac.
Mains are also designed to be a communal experience. A whole organic chicken comes with kabis (pickled turnips), sumac, and garlic whip. Lamb shank, Ilili’s priciest order at $68, arrives with Lebanese dirty rice, an “Old World jus,” and mixed nuts.
It’s all part of a menu that Massoud hopes will push customers to “recalibrate” what flavors they associate with Lebanese food. Dining over small plates is also the ultimate ice breaker, whatever the occasion. “It warms up the table right away,” Massoud says. “It’s really all about the bounty of food and celebration.”
Ilili’s opening marks a D.C. comeback for Massoud, who helped open Mediterranean hit Neyla in Georgetown in 1999. He says many of his regulars lived in New York and begged him to bring them a Lebanese restaurant. Ilili was hailed one of the city’s most ambitious Middle Eastern restaurants in terms of scale and decor upon opening in 2007 in a then Flatiron District he describes as the “Wild Wild West.”
Seeing lots of potential in a “majestic” location up for grabs at the Wharf, Massoud ordered a complete demolition of the interior. Now that pandemic-era restrictions have eased, he says the timing was right open an ambitious restaurant.
Massoud hired Walter Silva as an executive chef who has experience composing Mediterranean small plates at both D.C. outposts of Barcelona Wine Bar and a newer location in Raleigh, North Carolina. General manager Rachid Hdouche, an alum at Michel Richard’s Central and Charlie Palmer Steak, helped build a bar menu full of cocktails that employ arak, the unsweetened distilled spirit with notes of anise. Spins on classics include a Negroni infused with saffron.
A wine list includes Lebanese labels that claim a fertile terroir that was appreciated by ancient Greeks and Romans. A red made by Massoud’s cousins in the coastal city of Batroun is the only one that doesn’t interfere with his histamine issues, he says. Bekaa Valley’s renowned Domaine des Tourelles, which also makes a famous Arak Brun in a century-old cellar, is also stocked behind the 25-foot marble bar.
Cuisines from predominantly Arab regions have been on the rise in D.C., particularly as Levantine-themed Albi and Michelin-starred Maydan have drawn national attention with their high-end, wood-burning kitchens. Massoud says Ilili’s sheer variety of shared plates will help it stand out from the pack.
“Whether you want to go heavy or light, meat- or fish-centric, it’s your decision,” he says. “It’s Thanksgiving every night, pretty much.”
Ilili opens for dinner from Wednesday to Sunday. Brunch will begin soon, with some American influences sprinkled into dishes like chicken and waffles and a lamb burger.