During the course of the first evening of a recent week-long stay in New York, I was asked the following question by an FT reader. Which, he wanted to know, were the three best dishes I had ever eaten?
By the end of my second night I would have had one very strong candidate to add to my list. It was dessert at Lilia, in the Williamsburg suburb of Brooklyn, and it was remarkably simple. It was served in a glass that contained a mouth-watering amalgam of soft vanilla ice cream, extra virgin olive oil, sea salt and honey, on to which, for a further $25, the restaurateur, Sean Feeney, generously shaved a one-gram portion of white truffles from Italy. The combination was visually appealing and one that had all four of us reaching for our spoons, which we then licked clean.
This was a fitting finale to an excellent meal in a location with a story almost as unlikely as that of Feeney, whose response to my first email to him was timed at 5.45 am after he had finished well past midnight, together with his chef and business partner, Missy Robbins.
Being a restaurateur is Feeney’s night job. During the day he works on Wall Street, although when I asked him about his lack of sleep he quoted back at me an old Yiddish proverb his father had once written down for him, ‘If you want to live your life’s dream, don’t sleep.’ This is a situation he will now have to get used to as his wife, Maria, is expecting their second child in addition to Biella, their five-year-old daughter.
His initial encounter with Robbins began in 2008 at A Voce, owned by London-based Marlon Abela, when he was a customer and she was executive chef. They discovered that they shared the same apartment block in Manhattan and became friends. When Robbins began the process of looking for backers for the restaurant she wanted to open, an encounter with Feeney led him to offer to look over the numbers on her behalf. The realisation slowly dawned on them both that he might be in a position to offer her the financial understanding she was looking for.
They then began the long process of finding a site. Their initial focus was the West Village, close to home, but after visiting over 30 sites it became obvious that Manhattan was just too expensive and they shifted their attention to Brooklyn. An approach that Feeney describes as ‘methodical, calculated and somewhat maniacal’ finally paid off when they saw what was to be their future professional home, a former autobody shop. Feeney subsequently moved his family to Williamsburg, as did Robbins.
While this former incarnation is still clearly visible in the restaurant’s exposed wooden rafters, the unusual entrance and uncluttered forecourt, the interior has been cleverly redesigned to expose a large open kitchen and a long run of tables. By the neighbourhood’s standards, the music is not too loud, although the lighting is typical of this part of the world in that the torch on our iPhones had to be called into use to read the menu.
Robbins’ menu is distinctive even in a city as seemingly obsessed with Italian food and wine as New York, a fact that owes as much to its layout as to the quality of her brigade’s cooking.
The menu, date stamped with the words ‘ristorante, bar and caffé’ in a light green circle at the top, is broken down into six distinct categories. From the first, aperitivi salati, or cocktail snacks, we ordered two, one described as cacio e pepe frittelle, the second somewhat less prosaically as housemade mozzarella, toasted garlic bread, lemon and bottarga (shaved mullet roe). Both were very good, but the former, quickly fried balls of spiced cheese the size of arancini, were memorable.
The antipasti section is effectively broken into two: the more normal vegetarian starters and a most unusual section headed ‘piccolo pesce’, or ‘little fish’. The former included an appetising bagna cauda (a warm dip) and a splendid whole roasted artichoke with garlic and breadcrumbs while from the latter we enjoyed cured sardines with dill, most unusually, as well as grilled clams nicely spiced with Calabrian chillies.
I had been advised that Robbins had a particular touch with pasta in general and with agnolotti especially, so I ordered that day’s filling of these luscious parcels that are so typical of Piemonte, north-west Italy. Here they were just as good as the original, a light casing enclosing soft sheep’s milk cheese, the white tops given a vivid red hue by the addition of saffron and dried tomatoes, with a drizzle of honey. With this, and grilled chicken with broccoli and swordfish with marinated sweet pepper, we drank a 2013 Castello di Rampolla Chianti Classico for $70, and I paid a total of $440 for four.
I had in fact just paid this bill when I saw a glass dessert being delivered to the next table that gave me the opportunity to watch Feeney in action in his third job, this time as white-truffle shaver. Entranced, I called him over and ordered one for our table. It was a fabulous dessert. Simple but perfectly judged. Do go and enjoy Lilia and order this dessert – while Nature permits.
Lilia Ristorante 567 Union Avenue, Corner of North 10th and Union, Williamsburg, New York 11211; tel +1 718 576 3095
The photo top right is taken from Lilia's website.