Georgia On My Mind

For many wine lovers, Georgia is the ultimate bucket-list destination. Known as the ‘Cradle of Wine,’ the country’s rich history (over 8,000 vintages produced) has deemed it as the birthplace of fermented grape juice. Last month, I found myself seated at a café in Paris, when I unexpectedly received an invitation that I couldn’t refuse. The planned voyage was five days in eastern Europe’s winemaking mecca with three other wine professionals, travelling across the country to taste, see, and experience. Although I knew I’d be exhausted post-harvesting in Burgundy, this was an offer I couldn’t pass up. I last-minute accepted, and two weeks ago from yesterday, found myself on a flight to Tbilisi, the country’s bustling capital city.

Due to other prior engagements, I reluctantly had to cut my trip a day short, but the memories made within a short 96 hour period were some of the best in my life. Friends and family have been incessantly curious as to what the wines, food, and lifestyle were like over there; here’s a quick roundup of some of my personal highlights from four days in viticultural paradise.

QUEVRIS EVERYWHERE

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Quevris 

As Americans, we’re accustomed to drinking wines that are predominantly fermented and aged in either stainless steel or oak. Georgia’s ancient winemaking techniques call for the use of quevris, which are clay terra-cotta vessels stored underground to ferment and/or age wine. These porous vessels allow for an exchange of oxygen, as is the benefit from aging in oak, without the imparted flavors of oak on the wine. Quevri wines are unique– and sometimes hard to understand at first, if not accustomed to the taste– but once you taste through a few, you’ll never want to go back.

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Me with a 1,500 year old quevri

COMMUNICATING WITHOUT WORDS

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New friends

For those who know me, I’m lucky enough to have four solid languages under my belt. However, Georgian is not one of them– though in western Europe, this didn’t pose a problem at all. At dinner one night, I sat across the table from an older gentleman (seen above in the red and white plaid shirt) who didn’t speak any English. However, between gestures, facial expressions, and lots of wine, many laughs and beautiful moments were shared. By the end of the night, he hugged me tightly and kissed the top of my head, disappointed to see me go. I was reminded that with wine, it’s all about the emotions– words aren’t always necessary.

WHO RUN THE WORLD

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Baia in her vineyard

In the entire country of Georgia, the number of women making wine can be counted on less than two hands. I had the extreme pleasure of meeting Baia, a beautiful woman in her early 20s, shaking things up in western Georgia. Her small vineyard covers just 1.5 hectares, but boy is she doing something fierce with it. Last year, she won the national prize for ‘Best Farmer,’ followed by receiving funding from the Obamas to further educate women on the practices of organic farming. Badass is an understatement.

ALL IN THE FAMILY

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Meeting Zaza and Keto was an epic experience as well. Both husband and wife create funky natural wines that are oozing with life– though not together. Each spouse has their own winemaking project, though remain completely and utterly devoted to the ambitions of the other. Keto’s Naked Ojaleshi promotes a strong message, depicting a beautiful, naked woman in touch with nature and her natural being, alongside an image of the same naked woman ashamed and trapped in a cage. The text above reads ‘terroir vs. terror,’ a statement made to express the continuous suppression of women in Georgian society. Message aside, this wine may have been my favorite bottle from the entire trip.

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Naked Ojaleshi

CHA CHA

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Is there such a thing as too much chacha?

Chacha, the infamous spirit distilled from leftover grape pomace, has been known as the backbone for insane nights and unforgettable stories since the beginning of production. Let’s just say I had my fair share, too…

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THE FOOD

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As a vegetarian and certified picky eater, meal time on press trips can be the bane of my existence. Not in Georgia, though. Soft, pillowy breads, endless varieties of creamy, salty cheese, grilled vegetables, earthy mushrooms… the list goes on.

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THE HISTORY

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John Wunderman

When a tasting at Pheasant’s Tears alongside celebrated winemaker John Wurdeman is scheduled, you know it’s going to be good. When said tasting is followed by dinner at one of his restaurants, even better. One of his restaurants included a little decorated room, full of traditional Georgian relics and garb. When I (half-jokingly) asked if I could take the garb off the wall and wear it to dinner, his response was ‘why not?’ This may or may not have been a wine (ahem, cha cha) induced request. And it was granted. The look on the elderly Georgians’ faces as I strolled through the restaurant wearing said piece was absolutely priceless.

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Dressed for dinner

THE FRIENDSHIPS

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Every winemaker, business owner, museum curator, food preparer, had a heart of gold, full of hospitality and the desire to make our experience unforgettable. I arrived to Georgia with zero knowledge of the culture, language, or way of life, and left with countless stories, a few pounds gained, and a handful of new friends. Will I be back anytime soon? Definitely.

A Home Away From Home

It’s been just six days since I exited the train at Macon-Loché in the heart of Southern Burgundy and my world has been completely turned upside down. What started as a face full of makeup and perfectly blown out hair has turned into a hot mess of muddy sneakers, oversized sweatshirts, and a permanent line of dirt crusted beneath my fingernails. Mornings are early, evenings are late, and I’m consistently bloated from all of the cheap beer and delicious wine being flooded into my system. Oh, and I can’t stop eating cookies for the life of me. Send help.

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The perk of an early morning

But the truth is, I’ve never been happier. I remain constantly surprised at just how far my body can be pushed, how much my mind can take in, and the amount that I am learning in all aspects of wine, Patois dialect, and life in general. To start, things are different here. In this town, everyone knows one other. Cars pass and you wave. You call the the cashier at the grocery store by name. And if you have to buy something particularly embarrassing at the pharmacy… you do not remain anonymous.

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To be frank, this annoyed me at first. Everything takes five times as long because you can’t go anywhere without having a full blown conversation with the person next to you. You can’t walk down the street without saying bonjour to the person you pass, even if they happen to be an out-of-towner– that would just be inhospitable. You can’t simply keep to yourself, even if something is bothering you. Friendliness is imperative and smiles are not optional; as a New Yorker, you can imagine how I felt about this.

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My home

But with that comes a distinct sense of community, one that I’ve never felt in a city of eight million people. As I write this in a rare moment I have to myself on my terrace, enveloped by a landscape of rolling green vines, I feel a sense of comfort in knowing I’m not actually alone. As far as I might be from my actual home, this place has quickly come to feel like one.

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En terrasse

The other day, I came home after a long morning and plopped down on the one sun-drenched corner of my porch. Shoes kicked off, hair matted against my face, I stretched my body against the stony floor, letting the sun radiate its heat upon my sweaty forehead and dirt streaked shins. I closed my eyes and inhaled the clean, country air, with only the sounds of distant tractors and wind-rustled leaves around me. To my surprise, I woke up 20 minutes later from a nap I hadn’t planned on taking. In New York, I would’ve felt some extreme sense of guilt for wasting precious ‘work time’; but here, I felt relaxed and revitalized, even somewhat satisfied, for finally listening to my body and letting it rest when it was needed.

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I woke up just in time to head back down to the winery and watch the grapes roll in, destined for the pressoir, ready to be made into precious, Chardonnay-based wine– cookie in hand, of course.

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Bourgogne, France

Discovering True ‘Joie de Vivre’

I’m a pretty happy person. At least I’ve always considered myself to be. In fact, it takes much less to make me happy than it does for many others. I’ve never been one for fancy clothes or extravagant jewelry, luxury hotels, or anything beyond economy class seating on long-haul flights. When it comes to food and wine, basic blocks of cheese and inexpensive Loire Valley reds tend to call my name. Point blank, I’m simple. And I’m happy with all of it. Even as I get older, happiness still tends to come pretty easy for me; though it wasn’t until the other day that I truly experienced a whole new level of this so-called French joie de vivre.

I’m lucky enough to come to France as often as I do. And every time I’m here, it seems to somehow get better. I leave, thinking it’s impossible that anything could possibly top the trip I’ve just made, return shortly after, and continue to have my mind blown time and time again. So what is it about this place that relentlessly pulls us Americans back in for more?

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Paris, 10th Arrondissement

Simple. It’s the joie de vivre. No, not the stereotypical image of a millennial woman with her hands in the air, baguette in one hand, passport in the other, all with a flawless Eiffel Tower backdrop to match her totally unplanned striped shirt and high-waisted pant get-up. No, the real joie de vivre goes so much deeper than this, past the immaculate Hausmannian style architecture and hashtag nofilter Instagram photos of flawlessly placed food.

Joie de vivre is defined as the joy of living, the delight in being alive, an exuberant enjoyment of life, the sense of being weightless, carefree. In a technology-fueled, social-media addicted, workaholic culture like the one we have in the States, this simple state of happiness actually becomes much harder to reach. We never power off, we never shut down, and we certainly never stop comparing ourselves against the people to our left and right– or even worse, on the other side of the screen. I’m not saying this state of happiness is impossible in America, and I’m definitely not saying that it doesn’t exist. It’s just rare– and much harder to achieve.

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Parc Montsouris. August 2017.

We can read about it all we want, look up photos, or even take those ‘really long’ ten day vacations across the pond to witness it ourselves, but until you actually come and live it, joie de vivre simply remains a patchworked phrase sewn onto a pillow at Home Goods. In France, simple pleasures are almost harder to avoid than find. There’s a certain happiness that comes from plucking a ripe tomato the size of a golf ball directly off the vine and biting into it, letting its juicy red flesh dribble down the front of your chin. Or the basic act of walking into a boulangerie on a random weekday morning, the smell of baking bread and flaky butter wafting through the air, causing your eyes to flutter shut and soak it all in, simply out of reflex. And there’s something irreplaceable about going to a market and buying a bottle of wine directly from the winemaker himself, handing him a 5 euro bill and still receiving change, the rough calluses of his hands scratching up against your own as he places the bottle that he quite literally made himself into your palms. Joie de vivre, simple pleasures.

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Croissant aux Amandes et Chocolat

This past week, I went down to Châteauneuf-du-Pape to visit a winemaker I’ve known for some time. Rather than walk through the vines and relentlessly sip, spit, and take notes, we prepared a lunch from the family garden and sat on the terrace, sharing a simple meal over effortless conversation. We plucked basil from the garden, snipped the leaves with scissors over the tops of our sliced tomatoes drenched in olive oil– that yes, the family also made in addition to our afternoon labelless bottle of rosé, and sopped it all up with fluffy, seven-grain baguette. With stomachs full and summer sun beating down on us, our eyes wandered to the garage; two short minutes later, I was jumping on the back of the motorcycle in front of us, helmets strapped to our heads, engine hissing loudly as we pulled out of the gravelly driveway.

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Déjeuner

The wind whipped against my cheeks as the bike hit 120 km/h, my knuckles turning white from the relentless grip around my pilot’s waist. Endless rows of vines flew by as we mounted our way through all of the surrounding Provencal villages, stopping every so often for a beer or an iced tea. Lavender intoxicated my senses, an unavoidable yet quite pleasurable side effect of a motorcycle journey through the region. By the end of the day, we’d scaled the entire slope of Mont Ventoux, chilly mountain air replenishing my lungs from the numerous times my breath had been taken away throughout the journey. On the descent back down, I closed my eyes and breathed it all in, releasing one of my arms from the tightness of my own grip, letting the breeze find its way into the sleeves of my denim jacket, a sense of pure freedom and weightlessness that I’d never experienced up until that moment.

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A view from Mont Ventoux

To go to Châteauneuf-du-Pape as a wine journalist and not taste through even one lineup of wines could almost be considered a sin, and I’m sure many of my industry colleagues will have their own opinions on what a ‘waste of a trip’ I made. But I lived. And I regret none of it.

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Joie de vivre

The Liquid Gem I Found at a Sunday Market in Paris

Of all the places I’ve had the chance to visit, there is nowhere quite like Paris– and within Paris, there is nowhere quite like the market. Fortunately, for desperate market goers, there’s pretty much a marché open every day of the week, though it might not be the one closest to you. For succulent fruits and veggies, ‘Parisian’ (Made in China) trinkets, and fresh, creamy cheeses, learning the Parisian market schedule is crucial; Marché Bastille Thursdays and Sundays, Belleville Tuesdays and Fridays, Marché Monge Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays… you get it. This past Sunday, I did like the Parisians do and headed over to Bastille, coins clinking in my pockets and empty sac in hand, ready to scour out the good deals from the great ones. To my surprise, I got more than I bargained for.

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Marché Bastille ; 06 September 2017

Quite literally, in fact. Three avocados, a box of juicy strawberries, a brick of chevre studded with tangy cranberries, and a bottle of wine, all for less than ten euros. However, it’s the latter that is really the vein of this petite histoire. I didn’t go to the market with intentions of buying wine; in fact, I was actually looking forward to checking out my local neighborhood wine shop the following morning, completely set on drinking Aperol spritzes in the parc Buttes Chaumonts for Sunday night apéro; though when I read Val de Loire printed across the top of the small white tent, my curiosity couldn’t contain itself.

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Market Finds

An older gentleman stood behind the small array of bottles; judging by his demeanor and engagement with the man beside me, I assumed he had something to do with the juice placed carefully between us. He greeted me with a hearty bonjour, proceeding to explain basic details about the wines in front of me; cépages, different cuvées, the usual. Upon revealing my career in writing about wine, his face lit up, immediately disclosing that he indeed makes said wine, and that the winery is his family business. Grabbing a bottle, he showed me the more ‘traditional’ label, depicting a small house made of stones: ‘This was where my father began making wine,’ he said, proceeding to ask more questions about just what I do. The conversation ended with an invitation to his winery in the Loire, an e-mail address scribbled in my notebook, and of course, a bottle of wine placed between my hands.

From the cuvées set in front of me, I chose the Romorantin Vieilles Vignes; at a mere 4,50, the wine seemed like a steal. In reality, I’d payed more at Monoprix a basic bottle of Chenin just the night before. Romorantin is sadly somewhat of a lost grape. Once extremely popular in France, the variety currently only finds itself in the Cour-Cheverny AOC of the Loire. It’s genetically related to Chardonnay and Aligoté, producing full, mineral-driven wines. As much as I intended to save the wine for a few days, I knew it probably wouldn’t happen. Spoiler alert, it didn’t.

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My Sunday prize!

I cracked the wine that same night, just before my best friend arrived at my apartment. I couldn’t believe the liquid gold that was inside. The wine was mouth-coating and full, with a creamy viscosity that overtook my entire palate. Baked yellow apples and honeyed golden fruit dominated the palate, with a tingling acidity to balance it all out. How could this gem possibly cost less than five euros? I sipped and savored, staring out my window, knowing that in that moment, life couldn’t possibly get any better than this.

Just a few short minutes later, a light knock came from my front door. My best friend showed up, baguette in hand, and we shared a glass of that same wine together at my kitchen table. To my surprise, the impossible did indeed occur: life, along with said wine, did continue to get better.

A Diamond in the Rough on Long Island’s North Fork

The North Fork of Long Island leaves a lot to be desired. There, I said it. Yes, it’s beautiful and yes, you can eat some really damn good corn, but when it comes to wine, the place has got a long way to go. And this isn’t entirely the region’s fault. Compared with the rest of the world, the North Fork is relatively young and still trying to find its footing in the wine world. Couple that with the fact that the region turns into a rich people’s playground come Saturday and Sunday and you’ve got yourself a certified shit show. Now I can deal with a shit show to a certain extent, and I can deal with bad wine if the situation is dire– but I definitely can NOT deal with a shit show and bad wine simultaneously. Thankfully, there’s a light at the end of New York’s mansion-studded, vineyard covered tunnel.

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Photo via Paumanok

Founded in the early 1980s, Paumanok Vineyards has remained in the Massoud family hands for over three decades. Ursula and Charles Massoud, original proprietors of the estate, come from Kuwait; despite the fact that alcohol was technically illegal, underground consumption was huge. Though as the North Forker reports, most underground consumption consisted of hard spirits, making wine a relatively rare commodity to be found. Charles always had a dream in his heart to pursue his love of wine; one day, after the family’s big move to Connecticut, he saw an ad for the up and coming winemaking scene out on Long Island. He knew this was an opportunity not to be missed.

Fast forward thirty years later, and the entire family plays a role in Paumanok’s 100+ acre estate; the three sons, Kareem (winemaker), Salim (logistics manager), and Nabeel (vineyard manager), always wanted to take part in the project. The winery uses only estate fruit, consisting of Chardonnay, Riesling, Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Petit Verdot.

I ventured out to Paumanok a couple weeks back with a few of my cousins for a birthday celebration (yes, we were that group celebrating a 21st birthday, and no, there were no limos, crowns, or tiaras involved.) Upon my first sip of our tasting flight, I was immediately reminded of why I loved the family’s wines so much. Their current release Dry Rosé is crisp and thirst-quenching, and I’m sure the fact that it’s a Cabernet Franc dominant assemblage made my heart skip the extra beat that it did. Oh, and it’s also available in kegs, so on premise accounts and environmentally friendly consumers, this one’s for you.

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Our birthday group on the terrace, Festival Chardonnay in hand

The Unoaked Chardonnay was probably the biggest surprise of the day. Fermented and aged in stainless steel, the wine remains extremely clean and mineral driven, with notes of green apple and zesty salinity. This was a favorite amongst our group; in fact, this was the first bottle that we agreed to drink on the outdoor patio, leisurely sipping beneath the hot sun.

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Dry Rosé

As always, the winner of the day remained the Chenin Blanc. Juicy, mouthwatering, and full of bright stone fruit flavors, I couldn’t help but fall in love with the wine all over again. Slow, cold fermentation in steel tanks preserves the fresh, thirst-quenching flavors we all crave on those hot, summer afternoons. For me, this bottle alone holds the standard to which other wineries in the region should seek to be at.

For serious wine drinkers headed out east, make sure Paumanok is the first stop on your list. And when you do, make sure to bring me back a bottle of Chenin upon your return.

New Beginnings (Part Deux)

Well, nine months has gone by since my last “new beginning,” and I’ve clearly failed to maintain updates on a regular basis. With “New Beginnings Part Deux” I vow to do things differently this time!

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Nymfaio, Greece

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Greek breakfast

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Nymfaio, Greece

This last month has been a whirlwind. June started off on a rather epic note, with eight blissful days in Greece. From the sloping hills of Macedonia to the black sand beaches of Santorini, my breath was constantly taken away (and my glass consistently filled with something delicious.) Upon returning to NYC, after a life-changing, ten month run as a staff writer at VinePair, I’ve ditched my comfort zone to pursue the freelance life. A scary step indeed, but minimal fear generally brings loads of excitement and adventure. In fact, this post is being written from Sicily!

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Sciacca, Sicily

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Stemmari Winery

It’s 10:41 AM and already over 90 degrees outside. We just had a small breakfast of biscotti and Nutella and fresh peaches. Our group is gearing up for a homemade pasta making class with the three Sicilian women that cook on site here at Stemmari wines, then we’ll head to the Mediterranean for a plunge into the sea. If the days ahead look as good as today does, I’m sure the minimal fear this leap has incited in me will dissipate quicker than imagined.

Looking forward to having you all join me on this new chapter!

Vicki

New Beginnings

OK! Time to really kick this blog into gear. So much has happened over the last three months, the biggest being my departure from my role as a buyer at Quality House Wines to transitioning to a full time writer (!) and client manager at VinePair, with two and a half weeks of pure bliss spent in France between the transition. The past five weeks at VinePair have been a whirlwind of positivity, surrounded by new bosses and colleagues with whom I jive perfectly, a staff retreat out to the North Fork (shoutout to Shinn Estate and Paumanok for being incredible hosts!) and my first press trip to Louisville, Kentucky to become more informed about Bourbon. I find myself learning and writing more and more with each passing day, curiosity growing in unison with knowledge acquisition. Finally settled into my new roles, I am ultimately ready to sit back and enjoy the ride, always with a glass of something in my hand, and of course, my computer in the other, to document this journey each step of the way. Who’s with me?

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Freshly Harvested Grapes at Paumanok Vineyards, 07 October 2016.

 

Happy Hour at Ilili

Working until 7PM poses frequent happy hour problems in my weekday schedule, being that most of them are just ending when I’m finally experiencing my workday freedom. Living in NYC, happy hours are crucial for those of us on a budget, especially when the desire strikes to try one of the classier bars/restaurants in town. I had plans all week to get a drink with my friend Ana Sofia, who works in Flatiron (I work in Midtown East.) While attempting to stumble upon a good spot in between our two workplaces, I found a plethora of hot spots I’d been wanting to try for awhile; Gramercy Tavern, Eleven Madison Park, and Ilili, just to name a few. I checked out the Ilili website first, and to my utmost surprise, happy hour is until 7:30. I didn’t even bother going to the other websites– this was our choice.

Ilili is located on 27th and 5th, just a few blocks away from the Flatiron building. I’d heard a lot of buzz about this restaurant, specifically their delicious cocktails and eccentric twist on Middle Eastern cuisine. While the waiting area to be seated was a bit packed, I had no problem getting a seat at the bar at 7:15, just in time to get one round of happy hour drinks. The seasonal cocktail menu was brimming with some obvious summer favorites, including basil cilantro infused vodka, minty cocktails, and gin/elderflower creations. I settled on the Arabian Julep, bourbon based cocktail mixed with St. Germain, squeezed lime, and mint. The magenta colored drink was both tangy and refreshing; a perfect summer cocktail. Despite not being hungry, I ran my eyes over the small plates menu, which included Lebanese classics like hommus and falafel croquettes.

The trendy, bustling ambiance of Ilili is a definite must-try for any foodie or cocktail lover in New York. For those on a budget, stop by Monday-Friday between 5:30 and 7:30 for $9 cocktails and $7 house wine. Add a few bucks more for a Lebanese inspired small plate.

http://www.ililinyc.com/