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Fresh off their departure from the executive chef role at Michelin-starred Maydan, Marcelle Afram is bringing the D.C. area their version of one of Palestine’s national dishes—musakhan—in partnership with fellow Lebanese American chef Roro Asmar. The rotisserie-style halal chicken with skin that snaps is brined for 24 hours, then coated with allspice, sumac, cumin, fenugreek, and cardamom before going into a specialty oven imported from Lebanon.
Shababi is a takeout-only “ghost restaurant” operating out of Roro’s Modern Lebanese restaurant in Alexandria. When it launches on Jan. 22, customers will be able to pick up meals Fridays through Sundays from 5 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at 5655 General Washington Drive. In later weeks, Shababi will start offering delivery, including neighborhood drops that reach parts of D.C. and Maryland. Pre-orders for the first weekend open on Monday, Jan. 18. (The first weekend they will only be open Friday and Saturday.)
The price of a whole chicken that feeds three-to-four people ($50) or a half chicken that serves one-to-two people ($35) includes a bundle of sides (hazima in Arabic): za’atar fries, cucumbers in chili garlic oil, hummus, a ranch dressing-like sauce called mazraea, and taboon.
A taboon is a flatbread that’s typically served underneath musakhan. Shababi hand-stretches the dough and smears it with a puree of caramelized onions, cashews, and parsley. “Rip a piece of bread, take a bit of the chicken, and dip it into the hummus and mazarea sauce,” Afram instructs diners sitting down to such a feast for the first time.
In addition to the chicken spreads, Shababi’s menu will always have a plant-based Lebanese dish, which Asmar is known for. The opening menu features a mushroom shawarma ($14). Finish a meal with zalabia—a funnel cake-like confection dipped in orange blossom syrup that’s the color of the sun thanks to the turmeric in the batter ($5). See the full menu below.
The chefs connected when they teamed up to raise money to raise funds for disaster relief following the deadly blast in Lebanon in August 2020 that killed 137 people and wounded 5,000 others. They united other D.C.-area restaurants in their effort that in total brought in more than $50,000 in four weeks. “From that moment, we said it would be really cool to do something together,” Afram says. “I’ve been ruminating on the idea of something fast-casual that has to do with Middle Eastern food for a long time. It’s ingrained in me from my parents and their businesses.”
Both sets of Afram’s grandparents left Palestine as refugees in 1948. Their mother was born in Beirut and their father was born in Damascus, Syria. “That journey and its discernible flavors became a touchstone of my childhood … For me, Palestine was always the link. My grandfather would always say, ‘Palestine is in all of our hearts.’ I most identified culturally and food-wise with what they took from there to Lebanon and Syria.”
Their parents opened their first restaurant in Takoma Park in the 1980s. The casual spot served pizzas, subs, and Middle Eastern specialities. “They were so accommodating to whatever they thought they needed to do for the Western palette,” Afram explains. “Your cheesesteaks are great, but everyone loves your spinach pies, mom!”
Afram understands why their family served what they served. “It’s hard for Brown immigrants to come and establish themselves and make a living so there was a lot of westernizing of the food even though Middle Eastern people opened a lot of restaurants,” they say. Shababi, they continue, is “a reclamation of our food the way we want it spoken about and understood.” Word choice, on menus, matters. “We’re using Arabic words and describing them lightly. We want to start a dialogue with those who aren’t familiar with the food.”
While the taboon and musakhan aim to be traditional, Shababi takes more creative liberties with the hazina offerings. “The flavors are OG, but we’re just having fun with the food we love,” Afram says. When friends gather round to dig in, Afram hopes they shout, “Yallah shababi,” or, “Friends, let’s get together and eat!”
Since the start of the pandemic, fine dining chefs have traded their kitchen tweezers for more casual fare like sandwiches, burgers, and pizza because diners are looking for comfort and value. Now add Palestinian-style rotisserie chicken to the list. Shababi could have staying power. If the partners determine the demand is there and they can scale it, a brick-and-mortar restaurant is on the table. Follow the restaurant on Instagram for updates. That’s where the link for online ordering will be posted on Monday.