Not only will you find family-style Lebanese cuisine served at lil’ gem, but also a love and respect for family and heritage carried on through Chef Melissa O’Donnell and restaurateur Lesly Bernard. While O’Donnell does not sound Lebanese in the least, Chef Melissa celebrates her Lebanese culture by way of her grandmother and Bernard through his daughters, who are half-Lebanese.
Through the restaurant, they each share their passion for Lebanese foods. Diners will find the energy and passion of Lebanese dining brought to life at lil’ gem, their new restaurant at 29 Clinton Street (at Stanton Street). Using the term “Lebanese- ‘ish”, coined by Bernard, Chef Melissa interprets recipes and dishes served at the restaurant her way while maintaining respectfully authentic but whimsical dishes.
Diners at lil’ gem will find Chef Melissa’s modern menu includes small, sharable and large family-style plates, plus a selection of dips, flatbreads and shawarma, a popular street food in Lebanon typically consisting of grilled meat sliced off a vertical spit. Unique to lil’ gem, a house specialty features a deep-fried shawarma using diner’s choice of rib eye, root vegetable, lamb or chicken, served with miso fermented hummus. An icon of the restaurant’s open kitchen even includes an authentic Saj oven, from which guests are treated to a crispy, doughy herb-clustered Za’atar Manakeesh in addition to several flatbreads.
With toppings ranging from ricotta cheese with mission fig jam, to pickled plums and wild arugula, and lamb koftas with truffled sun- choke and mint, diners at lil Gem are treated to a wide variety of flatbread options. The restaurant even serves rotisserie ducks, in half or whole portions, which are cured overnight, then smoked after being rubbed with a unique marinade of quintessential Lebanese combination of honey, coffee and cardamon. The rotisserie also features half or whole chicken spiced with the common aroma of smoked paprika, turmeric and preserved lemon which one would find in Lebanon.
No Middle Eastern restaurant is complete without an array of dips. That’s where Chef Melissa’s playful palette of ingredients take center stage when presenting traditional small plates diners would find in Lebanon, for example, homemade Labne (strained yogurt dip), as well as smoked eggplant Babaganouj spun in the whimsy of fall black garlic puree, beet tartare and tahini whip. Other fanciful traditional dips include Miso Fermented Hummus as well as a dip called Muhammara (made with red pepper, walnuts, and a kick of Aleppo pepper).
Additionally, Lebanese cuisine’s liberal use of vegetables makes lil’ gem a natural destination for vegans and gluten-sensitive diners. Carrying through other unique ingredients into traditional dishes, Chef Melissa offers raw Falafel with shaved carrot slaw, cumin, lemon and tahini sauce and sweet potato-quinoa Kibbeh filled with toasted almonds, goat cheese and chives.
Chef Melissa and Mr. Bernard are both natural born hosts, and the gathering of groups is a pinnacle aspect of Lebanese dining. lil’ gem brings that excitement to Manhattan’s lower east side neighborhood, which is rich with immigrant culture, where artistic endeavors are explored, and where family and friends gather to share food, ideas and hopes for their future.
For more information visit lilgemnyc.com, call 646-368-1392 or stop in to the restaurant at 29A Clinton Street, NYC.