If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to jump into the pages of a high-end home and fashion magazine (besides really trippy), head to Ilona. Like all those beautiful people who wear beautiful clothes while casually reclining on a $3,000 sofa that’s been sun-bleached to a perfect shade of whatever color “glacial fog” is supposed to be, everything in Ilona appears to be perfect. And you, surrounded by the beautiful people of the South End, may find that you’re suddenly the type of person who sees a chair and goes, “Oooh, crushed velvet,” even if you’re not a hundred percent sure you know what crushed velvet is. That’s how good Ilona looks.
You might be a little suspicious of a place this beautiful, and that’s understandable. After all, what you see in those magazines is a complete and total fantasy. And when you walk into Ilona and put your name down (there will be a wait if you don’t book ahead), you might initially worry that they couldn’t have possibly put as much care into the menu as they did into the color scheme. But one bite of a perfectly charred octopus served with fried chickpeas and cherry tomatoes will put that worry to bed. The food at Ilona is so good that you’d gladly spend hours in here even if it felt like a catalogue for Earl’s Antiseptic Emporium.
Ilona is from the same team behind Kava Neo-Taverna, one of Boston’s best Greek restaurants. And at first glance, the menus look pretty similar - there’s a lot of lamb, olives, and other things you’ve seen your friends post pictures of on trips to Santorini. But Ilona’s menu is broader, stretching across the Eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea to cover things like za’atar mushrooms and a bunch of kebabs. The food is a little bit heartier than what you get at Kava, not in the sense that it will uncomfortably fill you up, but in the sense that it will warm you up - the braised short ribs over eggplant should replace hot coco as your go-to when you finish digging out your car after a snow storm.
It’s a restaurant that opened in 2019, so naturally most of the menu is made up of small plates. And that’s where you should direct your focus. The three meaty entrees they serve are all fine, but they’re simple. And why stick with simple when you could double down on halloumi cheese with pickled grapes, honey, and toasted sesame seeds - which might be the best appetizer in the neighborhood. Bring friends and make your way through the entire mezze section of the menu instead.
If you can’t get a table, the bar is a perfectly fine place to sit - especially since, despite the decor and plates that look like they came from someone’s grandma’s china cabinet, Ilona is fun and casual. It’s loud and crowded, with giant garage doors that open onto Tremont Street to make everyone who walks by jealous that they’re not inside. Order a cocktail (because unlike Kava, Ilona has a full liquor license) or a bottle of Georgian wine (because it’s not every day that you see Georgian wine in Boston) and get ready to have a great meal. Glacial fog is fake, but Ilona is very real - and you can get there without tripping.
It’s eggplant surrounded by county fair-style fried dough, and it turns out that adding fried dough is a great way to eat vegetables.
If you generally apply the rule of “don’t order something you see all over the city,” that’s understandable and we mostly agree. But make an exception for this octopus, which is pretty close to perfect.
A great way to start your meal. It’s smoked eggplant topped with tender, saucy short rib (saucy in the sense that it’s covered with a thick, slightly sweet tomato sauce, not in the sense that it will make fun of your haircut).
Unless you spend your weekends in the forest, foraging for food to practice for the inevitable zombie apocalypse, you can probably only name four types of mushrooms: shiitake, cremini, portobello, and oyster. Three of them are in this dish, and poor portobello must be pissed he was left out, because with za’atar and egg, it’s really good.
Maybe you’re the type of person who doesn’t order cheese and honey at restaurants because you figure you can easily do it at home. There’s some validity to that line of thinking, but toss it out the window here, because unless you also pickle your own grapes, you’re not going to be making this.
The meat is tender enough that you could pull it apart with an incredibly frustrating but environmentally responsible paper straw. But it also lacks flavor compared to the small plates. Skip it and stick to the mezze.