For the last six years, chef Philippe Massoud has been building Ilili into a Flatiron neighborhood staple, amassing a network of regulars who come in for his refined takes on dishes from his native Beirut. But when he first moved to New York almost two decades ago, he was intent on entering the fast casual realm–and as of last week, he’s finally making good on the goal.
His original draw to that industry, he recalls, was a restaurant he ate at on his college campus that did a “Tex-Mex version of Middle Eastern food. I lobbied the owner to take me on as a partner.”
Since then, he’s been biding his time, eventually opening and growing his full-service restaurant while waiting for an opportunity to bring his concept to life. He got his chance in 2010 when the Flatiron business district gave him the opportunity to submit a proposal for a space on the edge of Madison Square Park; once he landed the rights to build, he encountered a whole new challenge: “We were really pushing aggressively to see if we could get power or not,” he explains. “I wanted to go all the way green and use the wind and the sun to the best extent possible, but when we did the sun study, we learned we could not get enough sun to use solar power, and we would not be able to work out a water collection system. We were able to get the power, but it took quite a bit of time.”
About four years, actually. But last week, Massoud finally debuted Ilili Box, a spinoff of his existing concept that specializes in an “authentic reproduction of eastern Mediterranean food the way you could get it on any corner in Beirut, Jerusalem, or Tel Aviv,” he says. “But we’re pushing the envelope and not being rigid in how you can be creative with that food.”
He has childhood staples on his list–like shawarma, labne, and the pressed chicken he used to cross Beirut to find–but he also has inventive options, like Korean and Mexican falafel. “It’s like Ilili in that the menu is 60 percent anchored in tradition, and the other 40 percent is imaginative and explorative,” he explains.
And given that Ilili Box is an outdoor joint that’ll do most of its business in takeout (though you can sit down at the counter and have a beer or glass of wine with your meal), Massoud says he’ll respect the elements. “We will shut down for one to three months and hibernate with the bears,” he says. He also plans to offer soup during the colder months. “We’re inspired by the Soup Nazi’s success, but not the service,” he says. “We hope we can generate his success without the nastiness.”
Ilili Box, which debuted last week, is open daily from morning until 8:30 or 9 p.m. During colder weather, Massoud says, the stand will shut down around 7:30.