Lilia (NYTimes 3 stars)
Add: 567 Union Avenue, Brooklyn, NY
Tel: +1 (718) 576 3095
Hours: Mon-Fri 5:30pm-11pm; Sat-Sun 5pm-11pm
Price: 40-85 (+tax and gratuity)
Visited: November 2016
Will return: Definitely
New York is no stranger to good Italian food. Manhattan alone has plenty, from age-old establishments like Carbone and Del Posto, to relative upstarts like L’Artusi and Pasquale Jones. So when a new Italian restaurant has half of Manhattan flocking across the river to Brooklyn, you know it’s something different.
Lilia is such a restaurant. Almost as soon as it opened early last year, it quickly became one of the city’s most sought-after tables. Now, nearly a year later, securing a reservation within a month is still next to impossible, unless you are open to having dinner after 10:30pm.
The reason for all this hype is chef Missy Robbins, who is said to be President Obama’s favorite chef back when she was executive chef at Spiaggia in Chicago and he wasn’t yet president. Chef Robbins moved her talents to A Voce in New York in 2008, and earned the restaurant a Michelin star the next year. When she decided to move on in 2013, many a New Yorker were left pining after her pasta.
So when Chef Robbins finally opened her own shop after a three-year hiatus, pasta is, of course, an indispensable part of the menu. Lilia offers a healthy variety, but if you could only pick one, choose the agnolotti filled with sheep’s milk ricotta and feta. These plump little parcels are rolled in a puddle of honey butter sauce spun through with the whispery breath of saffron, its sweetness bringing out the depth and richness of sheep’s milk. And just when all the richness starts to get to your head, slivers of dried tomato come to your rescue.
Sheep’s milk cheese filled agnolotti, saffron, dried tomato, honey (23)
But I wouldn’t stop at one, not when there’s the mafaldini to be had. The mess of squiggly, ruffled ribbons looks deceptively plain, but the result is subtle and nuanced, starting with the firm pasta and the dry, powdery texture of grated parmigiano reggiano. Slowly the cheese melts into a delicious smoothness, taking on some gentle heat and lightly floral notes from flecks of pink peppercorns. Rarely has a pasta produced a journey of discovery so literally.
Mafaldini, pink peppercorn, parmigiano reggiano (19)
If I were in the mood for something less adventurous and more comforting, I would go for the rigatoni tossed in a spicy tomato sauce. Among the crowd of excitingly daring plates at Lilia, this dish is relatively simple and familiar, but Chef Robbins spikes the tomato sauce pointedly enough with chilies and oregano and a dusting of pecorino to give the classic Italian flavors new life.
Rigatoni diavola, San Marzano tomatoes, chilies, oregano, pecorino (18)
In true Italian fashion, the rest of the menu is light on meat and heavy on seafood, divided into little fish and big fish. Under little fish, tender squids are grilled to a fierce char, holding its ground valiantly on top of sweet marinated Corbari tomatoes. Chef Robbins’ dishes are made for sharing, but I wouldn’t mind having this all by myself.
Grilled squid, marinated Corbari tomatoes, fennel pollen (14)
Gently cured sardines are laid over crispy slices of grilled crostini, with two thick curls of butter sandwiched in between to mellow the sharpness of the fish. Plump grilled littleneck clams meet the bold influence of vinegar and Calabrian chilis, with texture supplied by some toasted breadcrumbs. The clams were slightly tough on my second visit, but the flavors were just as uncannily vigorous as the first time.
Cured sardine, capers, dill, fettunta (14)
Grilled clams, Calabrian chilis, breadcrumbs (16)
Under big fish, there is the hulking piece of grilled black bass generously slathered with salsa verde. These two components alone are already excellent, but when the roasted Yukon golds were thrown into the mix, something I didn’t realize was missing clicked into place, and everything fell into startling alignment, as if by grounding the acidity and herbiness, the potatoes somehow made the dish soar.
Grilled black bass, salsa verde, coal roasted Yukon golds (29)
The pasta and seafood are more than outstanding enough to lure diners from across the river. But Chef Robbins’ magic in the kitchen is such that she can make even the most boring-looking vegetables dazzle and shine. Florets of cauliflower and romanesco are given depth with a smoky char, some saltiness and spiciness with specks of soppressata, and brightness with a dressing of pesto and vinegar that builds slowly but insistently in acidity. The romanescos are unapologetically crunchy, while the cauliflower are more tender and yielding. It is these little sleights-of-hand from Chef Robbins that make the last bite as fascinating as the first.
Cauliflower, spicy soppressata, Sicilian pesto, marjoram (14)
The same kind of resourcefulness is also present in desserts. There was a luxurious slice of olive oil cake, immensely satisfying with its crunchy, sugary top and a moist, smooth center. A simple vanilla soft-serve was brought to life by some walnuts coated in a lemony glaze, whose lingering bitterness clears the palette with unexpected alacrity.
Olive oil cake, persimmons, grappa, whipped cream (9)
Vanilla soft-serve with lemony walnuts (8)
There is a fine line between simple and dull, just as there’s a fine line between inspired and crazy. It speaks to Chef Robbins’ experience and insight that her dishes consistently manage to fall on the right side of both lines.