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Chef Michael Lee Rafidi is part of a surge of young chefs who are rediscovering their roots. The second generation Palestinian American has spent much of his career cooking Spanish, French, and modern American. That changes at Albi, his first solo restaurant, opening in Navy Yard on Feb. 20. The name is an Arabic term of endearment that means “my heart.”
His menu is a tour of the Levant with hints of the chef’s Mid-Atlantic upbringing baked in. The mujadarra—a traditional mix of rice, lentils, and caramelized onions—that accompanies the grilled black sea bass includes Maryland crab fat. And Rafidi fills dolmas with smoked brisket instead of rice or a more traditional meat.
“There are so many traditional restaurants out there,” Rafidi says. “I’m not good at replicating someone’s dishes. I want the dolma to taste like it was cooked by someone’s grandma, but the presentation and identity behind it will have a different feeling.”
Albi will have a wood-fired oven for cooking pita bread made slightly tart by the addition of labneh and little meat pies. But it’s the 10-foot hearth that will be the workhorse of the kitchen. “There’s no gas in the kitchen,” Rafidi says. When he thinks of Middle Eastern cuisine the flavor profile of kebabs cooked over charcoal is the first thing that comes to mind. “You can’t replicate it over a gas grill.”
Must-try dishes include manti dumplings; hearth-fired duck wings served with orange blossom honey and tahini; sunchoke hummus; monkfish smoked in grape leaves; and any of the “shawarma-style” feasts that feed groups of three to four people. The latter features “whole cuts of meats and vegetables served like a build-your-own shawarma,” according to Rafidi, who likens the meal to a Peking duck spread at a Chinese restaurant. “I don’t want it to be too stuffy—you can get your hands dirty a little bit.”
Diners can veer off the a la carte menu and put their meal in Rafidi’s hands by opting to participate in a sofra meal. “Sofra means ‘set table,’” he explains. “It implies generosity. It’s not a bunch of little bites and a drawn-out three hour experience.” He wants it to feel like a family gathering instead. See the full menu below.
Being surrounded by talented cooks inspired Rafidi’s culinary career, which includes stops at Blue Duck Tavern in D.C., Talula’s Garden in Philadelphia, Michael Mina’s restaurant RN74 in San Francisco, and, most recently, Arroz and Requin in D.C.
Albi brought on two big beverage names to match drinks with Rafidi’s style of cooking. Chris Francke of Adams Morgan Middle Eastern cocktail bar, The Green Zone, dreamt up creative cocktails. He’s half Iraqi and is known for cleverly naming drinks that fold in ingredients from the Middle East such as arak, dates, pine nuts, and pistachios.
Brent Kroll of Shaw wine bar Maxwell Park collaborated with Albi sommelier William Simons to select 200 by-the-bottle and about 20 by-the-glass options largely from Israel, Lebanon, Turkey, and Georgia.
Kroll won awards for his wine list at Iron Gate, which included selections from every region in Greece. Greek wine wasn’t a focal point at many local restaurants and wine bars at the time, so Kroll had to dig in and build connections with winemakers rather than rely on distributors to bring him the goods. He’s taking a similar, hands-on approach with Lebanese wines at Albi.
The Albi wine list will have two distinct focal points. “Since [Rafidi] is cooking on the hearth, I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to do smokey reds?’” The idea is that wines with notes of cured meats will pair well with food tickled by open flames. Kroll says he’s also a fan of “savory whites” and will look for white wines with saline, or briny components. “And the rest is a blend of esoteric and classic wines—we’re trying to hit a lot of bases.”
There’s more to the partnership between Kroll and Rafidi. Kroll is opening a sibling wine bar adjacent to Albi later this winter with his team members Niki Lang and Daniel Runnerstrom. Rafidi will develop a small food menu for Navy Yard’s 30-seat Maxwell Park.
In between Albi and Maxwell Park will be an area used for private dining and a daytime cafe called Yellow. Chef Gregory Baumgartner will make pastries to accompany coffee and espresso drinks. Yellow isn’t scheduled to open until Spring 2020.
When it opens, the dinner hours will be 5 to 10:30 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays and 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. Brunch will follow. Albi will take reservations through Resy.
Some Washingtonians will undoubtedly compare Albi to Maydan, located off 14th Street NW. There are some crossovers between the two Middle Eastern restaurants, most notably live-fire cooking. But Rafidi wants the District to know the difference.
“I knew I was going to get compared to Maydan,” he says. “That’s cool. It’s a great restaurant. They transport you to the Middle East. It’s very verbatim to what you’d get over there. When you walk into it you feel like you’re in a different place. I’m not trying to bring everyone to Beirut. I support the local artisans we’re working with. I want food to taste Middle Eastern, but modern.” If you were to find an Albi in Beirut, he adds, it would probably be run by a younger generation.
Albi, 1346 4th St. SE; (202) 921-9592; albidc.com