I never made it to Noma. Somehow, the idea of reserving a fussy meal months ahead and paying thousands of dollars for it — indeed planning your whole vacation around it — left me cold. But if the restaurant came to me and I could walk right in, that was another story. And that is just what happened in the case of Ilis.
Noma co-founder, Mads Refslund, opened Ilis in the fall at 150 Green Street just off Manhattan Avenue in Greenpoint. The hulking place looks like a whitewashed warehouse on the outside, identified by a tiny metal plaque. The towering doors are flat black, and the staff all wear black head-to-toe.
Inside the ceiling soars, the walls are mottled with what looks like ancient paint, as if the space were only half-renovated. Candles gutter here and there, leaving gothic heaps of white wax. Had I stumbled into a séance? The kitchen is smack dab in the middle, totally dominating the room. It seems overstaffed, such that workers occupy its many islands and hover around, constantly docking and departing. A giant metallic hearth flames in the center with two fire pits, chickens wrung by the neck hanging beside it. Seating surrounds the kitchen, the tables pressed against the walls, all with a view of the action.
I took a look at Resy and found that a single reservation was available that evening for the $295 field guide tasting menu (with an optional $195 wine pairing) at 9:45 p.m. (There is the $195 market tasting, too.) Too rich for me. But the website mentioned bar seating with a special menu, also available in the adjoining lounge. I decided to go that route.
I showed up at 5:30 p.m. just as the place opened, and found a lounge and bar with plenty of seats. The lounge was lined with big puffy couches. I took my seat at the bar, and was handed a menu and a pen. The menu listed 15 dishes, ranging in price from $6 to $110, and the bartender instructed me to put check marks next to the ones I wanted.
First up was whelk ($8). It came on a heap of ice in its splendid shell, a minced mollusk surmounted by a lemony sea-foam. A little spoon made of whelk shell that looked like it might be wielded by a very dainty Viking accompanied. The dish was fabulous: three or four of the best bites I’ve had all year. Next came a single Dungeness crab carapace ($28) fringed with what looked like fur, turned over dramatically to reveal swatches of flesh pinwheeled with slivers of persimmon, with tomalley that looked like tahini poured over at the presentation; This was every bit a good as the whelk, a seagoing masterpiece that was also a piece of art, with a taste both sweet and mild.
The meal sagged a bit with the big eye tuna ($26). Red slabs of fish were interspersed with fresh herb leaves and resting on a wet brown gravel of sea salt. I patted myself on the back that the fish was sustainable, tasting more earthy than oceanic. Next came a vegetable course, two Brussels sprouts stems ($30) with the tiny cabbages radiating like doorknobs. They’d been slathered with a spice paste said to contain soy sauce, sake, and black truffles. I enjoyed the verdant taste, but the things were difficult to pry off the stem with the teeth, and an epic mess resulted. As if in anticipation, a damp cloth is provided.
The final savory course was one of four bigger options on the menu: pot-roasted cauliflower, fluke both raw and cooked, barbecued antelope, and a half or whole Amish chicken. Of course I picked the antelope ($37). When the server delivered it, she eagerly explained that it was from South Texas. It was accompanied by a slurry of spinach, and an almost-crisp hoja santa leaf along with some pulverized grasshoppers, lending a slightly minty and slightly Mexican flavor. As a Texan myself, I wouldn’t really describe this as barbecue, but it did have a nice smoky flavor and was rare in the middle.
My meal ended deliciously with a small serving of Danish porridge made with beer and rye bread, with a sweet cream cloud on top ($12). It was a wonderful meal that set me back $170 including beverage and tax. Not only did it cost less than the cheaper of the tasting menus, but you get to walk right in off the street, pick your own dishes, and only budget one-and-one-half hours for the experience. And afterwards, you can feel like you’ve been to Noma.