Is this Experimental Restaurant New York’s Answer to Noma?

ilis restaurant brooklyn
This New York Restaurant Is a Song of Ice and FireEvan Sung

To find your way to New York’s most whispered-about new restaurant, you need only sniff the air, bloodhound-style. Yes, that’s woodsmoke amid the pizza-joint smells and bus exhaust, a primal, arboreal aroma that feels out of place along this stretch of Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

Where there’s smoke, there’s Ilis, an imaginative new wood-fired dining concept from Danish chef and Noma cofounder Mads Refslund. Ilis is a restaurant where chefs are servers, servers are chefs, and where a dance between fire and ice (Ilis takes its name from the Danish words for both elements) informs the restaurant’s intricate North American cuisine—and its design. Thanks to a central open kitchen and no clear-cut distinction between back and front of house, the theater of dinner service is on full display to diners lucky enough to snag a reservation. Flames from a 12-foot-long open fire lick at juicy plucked fowl. Chefs wheel carts heaped with oysters and whelks straight from their work stations to the eagerly awaiting diners. The scene is one of delightful, controlled chaos.

ilis restaurant brooklyn
Chef Refslund working in front of the impressive wood-fired grill. Evan Sung

Setting the stage for this kind of action—the feeling like you’re at a friend’s dinner party, albeit one with Michelin-star bona fides and whelks on the menu—was Refslund’s brief to project architect Grant Blakeslee, founder of the firm Hand.

For Blakeslee, a graduate of UC Berkeley’s architecture program who describes his firm as “nomadic,” the project was a tall order—especially since it was only his second restaurant design. Not only that, he had to figure out how to navigate the New York City code requirements for installing a fire-spewing grill (a similar one, in fact, appears in the 2022 foodie horror flick The Menu) and also satisfy a world-renowned chef, not to mention transform a raw, 4,500-square-foot former factory into a venue for Michelin-worthy dining. “It was drinking from a firehose for three years,” Blakeslee tells us. But “[Refslund’s] background, his brain, just everything aligned with what I want to be doing in architecture and design.”

ilis restaurant brooklyn
A floating, plaster-clad volume delineates the cooking space while providing cover for the restaurants mechanical systems. Evan Sung

Early on, says Blakeslee, the pair decided that the cooking space would be “a show kitchen, a working machine.” The kitchen, therefore, marks Ilis’s conceptual and physical nucleus. As you float through the sprawling open space—first passing through a narrow darkened vestibule, then moving past a lounge and bar, defined by white-washed exposed brick, cozy, low-slung furnishings, and gauzy drapes—you are drawn to a glowing open kitchen, crowned by a sculptural, meringue-like plaster volume. It’s here, beneath this cloud, that chefs busily but methodically work, moving between the glowing hearth and refrigerated vitrines.

Like the menu, the space is all about thoughtful interior details. An instrumental partner in the project was the Mexico City–based firm Atra Form, which designed the restaurant’s millwork and furnishings, like dining tables with softly beveled edges and banquettes clad in handsome black leather. Throughout the vast dining space, the palette is soft and the lighting dim. Conical sconces made of blackened brass and leather float from the 16-foot ceilings, illuminating each dining table and each intricate dish like a spotlight, thanks to Danish-born, New York–based designer Camilla Stærk. “My starting point was the whole concept of fire and ice,” Stærk explains. “The glow inside the raw brass resembles the burning fire flame.”

“I like to keep things simple and honest,” Blakesee adds. “We used as many natural materials as we could.”

ilis restaurant brooklyn
One of Ilis’s tasting menu items—a Bloody Mary–like clam juice beverage contained within its own shell. Evan Sung

Then there’s the dishware, which ranges from delicate bespoke cocktail glasses by Brooklyn glassblower William Couig to chargers woven from twigs to dishes made from literal dishes. The chefs transform elements of what you’re eating into primitive serveware—take a drinking vessel made from two lashed-together clam shells that contain a variation of a Bloody Mary.

The quiet sophistication of the interiors belies how hard these elements actually work. The dining tables, when not in use, can be expanded and elevated, giving chefs extra space to prep for the evening’s service. The floors conceal pipes that facilitate the incredible amount of refrigeration needed. Meanwhile, that floating kitchen “cloud” contains all of the air-conditioning needed for the space. That brings us back to that 12-foot-long grill, which Blakeslee estimates is the only one of its kind in New York City, which not only necessitated special permits from city planners, but also special rooftop mechanical systems and pollution control units—“nothing hot,” Blakeslee says.

ilis restaurant brooklyn
A lounge alongside the bar area, with furniture designed by Atra Form, invites diners to sit and stay a while. Meanwhile, a partnership with Faurschou, the gallery next door, allows for a revolving program of artworks. Evan Sung

But it all comes together to create a space that is, indeed, quite hot. Through both the cuisine and the space—maybe it’s the delicacy of the dishes like roasted brown trout fresh from Pennsylvania, the luxury of those sky-high ceilings, or, yes, the aroma of woodsmoke—you’re transported outside New York City. And fortunately, Ilis recommends you take your time in this distinct universe: The restaurant suggests you spend at least three hours in the space for its $295 12-course “Field Guide” menu. After a meal, guests are invited to lounge on soft sofas surrounded and indulge in a nightcap over the soft murmur of conversation and the bustle of the kitchen.

“I’ve dined there maybe five times now,” says Blakeslee, adding that his favorite feedback has been from the chefs who work there. “Lucky me.”

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