Curiosity got the better of me, and I went to one of those trendy new Italian places that I just told you were too exhausting to get into. It’s just that I know that if dining alone, the wait can often be shorter if there’s a bar, regardless if it’s seat yourself or managed by staff. I made my way to Lilia relatively early one night on a day off. I had hoped the cold and rainy weather would keep people away and get me a bar seat quickly, but no, at 6:30 pm, I was quoted a 60-75 minute wait. Kudos to the skill of the hosts’ because I think it ended up being a minute or two over the hour mark, leaving me no solo luck and disproving any related theory.
While waiting in the daytime café space, I thought about how Lilia occupies a location in North Williamsburg that demonstrates the change in the neighbourhood’s landscape and residents. I’ve only lived here four years, but I say this with confidence and with the experience of residing just off Bedford Avenue for a short spell when I first arrived. The facades of condo glass and the slickness of many new, more bougie businesses have a strong Manhattan Lite quality to them, a characteristic that, while not always in the same guise, is also changing Brownstone Brooklyn. These changes can induce cringes, but I need to constantly remind myself that New York is a city that has always been in flux, so mourning the previous or familiar is useless. Thus, Lilia, with its attractive design and relative spaciousness, is in sync with the slick North Williamsburg of today. I say that with as much objectivity as possible, and knowing that my tastes are often more today than yesterday. I say that as well because as much as I hate cheap condo conversions and walls of glass (I lived in Vancouver, remember), I did really like being in Lilia, waiting in Lilia, eating in Lilia. An hour is a significant wait on a dreary night, but it gave way to such a positive experience.
While a trendy space in a trendy place, Lilia has been receiving strong reviews and is helmed by a celebrated chef, Missy Robbins, who was working the pass the night I visited. Online menu stalking had me strongly leaning towards certain dishes, but then I asked the bartender for his recommendations and leanings changed. Significant indecision. This only increased when I saw that the person next to me had some sort of focaccia that was not on the menu. A stronger glance at that person revealed Action Bronson. At this point, I was stone-cold sober, so I can only assume my hunger emboldened me to tap him on the shoulder, give appreciation for his culinary enthusiasm, and ask him about the focaccia. “It’s now yours’” he replied as he slid the plate over to me. After asking him for his recommendations, which suggested this night was not his first visit, I went back to studying the menu and quieted my stomach grumbles with the rather dry, ramp focaccia (I think it was leftover from the daytime café kiosk). More back and forth with the bartender. More studying. My indecisiveness led Mr. Bronson to share an agnolotti (agnolotto?) with me to determine if that would be my pasta dish or not. It was divine. Trying an accompanying tomato as well confirmed to me why people have been swooning over this dish; it was a seemingly benign component that had an unexpectedly large impact. A recurring theme in the dishes I tried. That taste did help with decision making; a little bit of divinity was more than enough for this visit.
Ramps! Are! Here! You feel slightly ashamed if you don’t take part in the frenzy of the spring greenmarket season, so I started with this oh-so-seasonal dish. I’m big on alliums, so I knew I would like the sautéed ramps, but I didn’t expect to love them. That was down to the chili and vinegar. The slight burn and acidity gave the plate complexity you might have assumed would only come from the cheese, which was obviously salty and delicious.
I had been thinking about the sardines on toast as something to try from the seafood section of the menu, but the bartender swayed me to the squid. I worried that two starters and a pasta would be too much, but I can’t fathom how this dish could be shared. I mean that both because the portion was small-ish for an assumed shareable appetizer and because I liked it so much I wouldn’t want to share it. The char, the sweetness of the tomato, and the anise of the pollen endeared me to the little bowl, let alone the squid’s perfect texture. The elements were all so simple and distinguishable, but the skill in how they were put together resulted in a sophisticated dish. Whole greater than the sum kind of thing.
Cacio e pepe can be found across the city in unique preparations, and this one veers slightly off course with the use of pink peppercorns. This gave the bowl of noodles less bite, but it added a floral note that was just different enough to renew interest in the classic Roman dish. The pasta itself made my night. I don’t know if it’s more apt to say that the malfadini are like curly-edged fettuccine or like skinny lasagna noodles. Pick what makes more sense to you. Either way, they were some of the most gloriously al dente noodles I have ever had. I did my best to avoid having to cut the strands because a single one twirled thickly around my fork enabled a heavy dose of the chewy goodness. The pleasure in that activity is why I’m glad I ordered it over the agnolotti.
Moist is an icky word, but how else to describe a cake that isn’t dry? How else to describe a cake that fights your fork a bit because it’s not all airy crumb? To say that it’s an oily—but not greasy—cake is ridiculous, but true. The figs did their job of cutting the richness. That all being said, we know that I really ordered the cake because of the cream.
This was a “wow” meal for me. Focaccia aside, I would not hesitate in ordering all of the dishes again. I was also impressed with the service at the bar, as they were one of the warmest and most attentive bar teams I’ve ever experienced. I had been largely happy with my meal at Faro, but in contrast to Lilia now, the gaps in execution and flavour become more pronounced. The difference between good and excellent. With so much good food here, when excellent happens at an unexpected moment, you’re thrown for a bit of a loop. Or a twirl.