Amex Yurt Villages: An incredible dinner at Lilia in New York City

Jan 13, 2021

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I’ve taken many extra precautions throughout the pandemic, including avoiding indoor dining. Sadly, that means my “outdoor dining” options are limited, too — many restaurants throughout New York City have built makeshift enclosed dining rooms in the street, choosing to prioritize heat over airflow, making it difficult to avoid spreading COVID-19.

That isn’t the case across the board, though. A handful of top restaurants throughout the U.S. have teamed up with American Express and Resy to build safer “yurt villages,” where diners can eat and drink in their own private space, maintaining distance from other guests.

Currently, the list of participating restaurants includes:

  • Arlo Grey in Austin, TX
  • Bywater American Bistro in New Orleans, LA
  • Canlis in Seattle, WA
  • The Charter Oak in Napa Valley, CA
  • Crown Shy in Manhattan, NY
  • Fairfax in Manhattan, NY
  • Fiola in Washington, DC
  • Frasca Food and Wine in Boulder, CO
  • The Grey in Savannah, GA
  • Kann in Portland, OR
  • Lilia in Brooklyn, NY
  • Swift & Sons in Chicago, IL
  • Zahav in Philadelphia, PA

Although we were certainly tempted by two great options in Manhattan, my girlfriend and I decided to book dinner at Lilia, an incredibly popular Italian restaurant from Michelin Star chef Missy Robbins, across the Williamsburg Bridge.

Even with the separation afforded by a private yurt, I was a bit concerned about eating in one immediately after another group, so we booked near the beginning of the dinner service, at 5:30 p.m., and I reached out to the restaurant to confirm that we’d be the first to use our yurt that day.

Booking

While anyone can open up the Resy app and see real-time availability, you need to be an American Express cardmember to lock in a reservation at an Amex Yurt.

Amex states that Platinum and Centurion cardmembers “receive access to special on-site perks when they dine, from bottled cocktails and sweet treats, to an additional exclusive course with their menu or VIP tour.” I made sure to book with The Platinum Card® from American Express, but Lilia didn’t end up adding anything in.

While some restaurants may offer more yurts, Lilia has just 10, with four seats each. Reservations for two people are incredibly difficult to come by, but there’s generally decent availability for groups of four. Still, if you’re hoping to lock in a specific date and time, I’d book as early as you can.

Screenshot courtesy of Resy.

I was able to reserve a table for two by booking on Resy’s website almost as soon as reservations opened up, at 10:00 am Eastern Time, exactly 30 days in advance. I also added a note that we were celebrating my birthday, just a few days before.

All reservations are prepaid, and, according to the booking page, nonrefundable, but our confirmation email stated that we could change our cancel our reservation without a fee up to 48 hours in advance.

Screenshot courtesy of Resy.

While pricing varies from one restaurant to the next, dinner at Lilia will currently run you $125 per person, plus a mandatory 20% gratuity and tax, bringing the grand total to roughly $160 per person, before adding on drinks — a steep price, but, as you’ll see, it included a ton of incredible food.

Arrival

While I haven’t ventured to Brooklyn much during the pandemic, it was only a 20-minute (and $20) Uber from my home near Union Square — an entirely reasonable ride, even for a mid-week meal.

Since we were dining during the first seating and our yurt hadn’t been used yet that day, we were seated right away. Technically, yurt experiences are limited to two hours, although the restaurant didn’t seem to strictly enforce that time limit, so you might end up waiting a few minutes if you aren’t in the first seating — with so many courses to experience, it could easily take longer to get through your meal.

Lilia had sent me a text to confirm our reservation a few days before, and noted that “though the yurts are equipped with overhead heaters, they are still considered outdoor dining so we do suggest you dress warmly.”

I’m glad we brought our winter coats — even after turning the heater on high, the yurt remained chilly throughout our meal. You might also want to wear warm pants, and perhaps even boots — our toes were quite tingly by the end of the two-hour meal.

As we got settled, a waiter brought over the dinner and drink menus, along with hand warmers and a registration card, so New York City contact tracers would be able to get in touch if an employee or guest ended up testing positive for COVID-19.

The server also politely reminded us to please put our masks on anytime someone approached the table — a great practice, and something we already always do.

Since your meal is prepaid, drinks are the only extra expense. We ended up each getting a Negroni and Milano sour ($15 each) — both delicious — along with an $8 bottle of sparkling water, adding $50 to our total, including an extra tip.

I apologize in advance for the quality of the photos — since the heat lamp is also used to light the yurt, you’ll definitely want to use a camera (or app) that allows for manual white balance if you’re hoping to photograph your meal.

Appetizers

We weren’t sure what to expect on the food front — we knew we’d be getting four courses, but the menu listed a handful of items in each section, so we began discussing what we wanted to order. We were very pleasantly surprised to learn that everything was included — yes, the entire menu. Wow!

Note that the restaurant can accommodate dietary restrictions — if you don’t eat red meat, the kitchen may be able to offer a fish course, or perhaps extra pasta dishes instead. Be sure to add a note to your booking, and consider calling the restaurant to confirm.

Our appetizers arrived shortly after our drinks — and, based on the portions we’ve been eating at home, would have been more than enough for a complete dinner for two.

The first dish was Lilia’s take on cacio e pepe, a Roman dish of spaghetti, black pepper and grated cheese. The Cacio e Pepe Frittelle were pillow-soft — deep-fried, but not greasy, and packed with flavor. I could have eaten an entire bowl, but one each was more than enough for a sufficient taste.

Next was the prosciutto — always a treat, with a perfect mix of fat. The bread was delicious as well, as was the balsamic mustard. I prefer my butter with a bit more salt, but there wasn’t any on the table. I’m sure I could have asked for some, but I was fine to skip it, given how much food was to come.

Next up, the speck was a bit lighter, but still full of flavor, and equally delightful with a small piece of bread.

The grilled cardoons, which the waiter described as having the flavor of artichoke with the appearance of celery, added some variety, though, personally, I prefer the taste of artichoke to this dish.

The roasted carnival squash, meanwhile, was quite hearty, especially with bits of guanciale, a type of Italian bacon made from pork cheeks. While it was nice to have a wintery addition, I didn’t eat too much, to avoid filling up.

Finally, I’ll always have room for Romanesco, a vegetable that tastes a bit like broccoli but adds a sophisticated twist. The heavy lemon flavor helped elevate this dish even further. I only wish we had gotten more.

Pasta course

Next, the reason many people go so far out of their way to book a table at Lilia: the pasta!

The menu varies from time to time, but I’d expect to get an assortment of pasta dishes, given that they’re always such a highlight.

First, the corzetti alle erbe (with herbs), a disc-shaped pasta that I haven’t encountered before, but seems to be popular in Northern Italy. The pasta was a bit dense for my liking, although it was a fantastic vessel for the pine nuts, cheese and herbs.

The casunziei was definitely the most unusual of the bunch, at least from a flavor perspective. The beet was sharp, and definitely the dominant component. It was an excellent dish overall, though, especially considering the delicate yet robust pasta. I loved the hint of poppy, too.

This could also be a fun dish to attempt at home — especially if you have someone you’d like to impress.

The final pasta dish, a mafaldini with pink peppercorn and Parmigiano, had such an incredible balance of flavor and texture. The peppercorn was by far the strongest flavor, and reminded me of the peppers you might find in Schezuan, China — just with a significantly scaled-down heat. The ruffled edges of the mafaldini did a remarkable job of locking in all of that pepper and cheese, too.

As you can tell from the picture below, we “hated it” all.

A neighborhood pup seemed excited about our meal, too — he made a beeline for our yurt as he and his owner walked by!

Entree

With fine-dining Italian, it’s certainly not unusual to order a full pasta course before moving on to meat or seafood — and that’s exactly what we did here.

I love steak, and this was a very good steak, but Lilia is best known for its pasta dishes — personally, I would have preferred to have more of those, and saved the ribeye for home.

Two sides were included, too — first, grilled treviso, a type of radicchio, in this case served with walnuts. It tasted a bit sweet, with very good flavor, overall.

The main course was also served with cavolo nero, or Tuscan kale, served with nutmeg and Parmigiano Reggiano — a very pleasant dish.

We only ate a bit of each and saved the rest for another meal at home!

Dessert

By this point, we were of course completely stuffed. I guess we could have done a better job of pacing ourselves, but this was easily enough food for four people.

There was still dessert to be had, though, including a candle the staff added in recognition of my birthday.

The chocolate torta was cooked perfectly, with a nice flavor — not too sweet. I also loved being able to dollop on tons of fresh whipped cream. Yum!

The chestnuts, meanwhile, were easily the “weakest link” of this meal. They were barely warm, bland and even tasted stale. Nothing like the fresh, fire-roasted chestnuts I’ve enjoyed during winter in Europe. They matched the “yurt” theme, I suppose, but could have easily been left off.

Bottom line

We had an absolutely fantastic dinner at Lilia. Will I book an Amex yurt anytime I’m in the mood for pasta? Sadly, no — it’s difficult to justify dropping $160 per person for dinner on a regular basis, but I could definitely see doing this again for a special occasion.

Of note, chef and owner Missy Robbins was outside making the rounds, and while she stopped by a handful of yurts, she didn’t visit ours. Perhaps a yurt-side visit is a perk reserved for Centurion cardmembers, or Resy Select members.

For now, it’s back to cooking most of our meals and getting takeout from restaurants in the neighborhood. I’ll be back at Lilia once it’s safe to eat inside again, though, and I’ll certainly never forget this special, mid-pandemic meal.

All photos by Zach Honig/The Points Guy.

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