Albi – Washington, DC
Updated: Jul 2, 2022
As covered previously in the latest installment of the "Eat Like the Maestro" series, during my little road trip out east a multi-day stop in DC was in the cards, and thus was a visit to Albi, one of the most exciting new restaurants in the country and one that has taken the DC food world by storm. I had been intending to take a cute friend, Michael, from college on a date in DC for a while, and was thrilled when he agreed to enjoy Albi's "sofra" or "Hearth Table" semi-improvisatory tasting menu with me, where Chef Michael (as opposed to who, for clarity, I'll call "Date Michael") tests out new spinoffs on classic Levantine fare.
Albi, Arabic for "my heart," is the project of Palestinian-American Chef Michael Rafidi, who marries his immigrant family's reservoir of traditional Levantine recipes with his spectacular creativity and the best ingredients from the Mid-Atlantic. Everything here creates the perfect environment for a special meal––the service is top-notch, the food is storied yet inventive, and the beverage program is about as cutting-edge as it gets. The glowing hearth is the epicenter of the open kitchen, over which succulent skewers of spiced meats are gifted with the umami of smoke and finished with bursts of lemon, garlic, pomegranate molasses, and Middle Eastern spice.
Eater lists Albi among it's "11 Best New Restaurants in America" for good reason, and I got lucky to land one of two "Hearth Tables" directly adjacent to the open kitchen to sample Chef's exclusive "sofra" menu, only offered to the guests of the Hearth Tables. It was one of the most highly anticipated meals of my trip, and the beginning of a four-night stretch of blockbuster meals to close the book on my wild trip out east.
The hospitable staff accommodated us graciously even though the DC rush hour traffic, the absolute worst I have ever experienced, delayed our arrival a remarkable 40 minutes past our reservation time. Fortunately, the Hearth Table isn't a group experience as I assumed, so we didn't keep anyone waiting except our rumbling tummies!
The setting could not have been more lovely. In front of us, the roaring hearth and a busy kitchen staff in the fore, with Chef Michael expediting to the left. Behind us, the bustling dining room flanked by hanging plants and tile mosaics, with full glass windows overlooking the Navy Yard district and the Potomac.
Albi's formidable cocktail menu features a plethora of Middle Eastern liquors and ingredients. Their Queen Kheera immediately appealed to me as a gin and citrus drink, my favorite way to start a meal, as well as with its caption, "dynamite with a laser beam, guaranteed to blow your mind." Lebanese gin paired brilliantly with tart rhubarb and lemon, cool cucumber, and aromatic orange blossom.
We soon found our table graced with little snacks. Olives smoked over the hearth accompanied leaves of fragrant cabbage pickled with turmeric. Two ideal bites to excite the palate for the meal to come.
Accolades have poured in for Albi's wine program, curated by William Simons, and its emphasis on Mediterranean wines from the Levant. The deep, niche list is intensely curated with many rare and obscure labels and is unlike any wine list I've seen. We began the evening in another corner of the Mediterranean, Greece, with a lovely, biodynamic rosé made with native Moschofilero grapes. Floral notes on the nose from the brief skin fermentation invite the drinker into an aromatic mélange of citrus on the palate.
As mentioned earlier, in his sofra menus Chef Michael likes to play with classic dishes from the region, infusing them with progressive flavor combinations and local ingredients. Dolmas come from the reaches of the former Ottoman empire and are best known to Western palates as a staple of Greek cuisine. Chef Michael stuffs these grape leaves not with rice, but with Maryland crab meat, topping with pickled cucumber and spices. Fantastic little bites, and Date Michael did a better job with the photo!
More classics reinterpreted were next in the queue, with the portions getting heartier! Falafel is a standard of Levantine cuisine, and Chef adds to his seasonal ingredients from Mid-Atlantic purveyors. The crispy morsels of spiced chickpeas gained hefty umami from sautéed morel mushrooms and sweet onions, while labneh (a type of cream cheese) provided creamy acidity beneath the aromas mint and chili. The second serving was a take on Turkish flatbreads called "pide," made with traditional minced lamb meat, a za'atar-like spice blend, and a supremely garlicky Lebanese spread called toum.
Chef's take on Lebanese kibbeh nayeh provided the most picture-perfect dish of the night, accompanied by lettuce wraps and pickled veg to craft little Mediterranean "tacos." Two versions graced the plate––first was minced raw yellowfin tuna accompanied by pickled cucumber and nasturtium leaf, and second was made from English peas cooked over the fire. Both were dusted with za'atar spice and served alongside more of that magic garlic toum.
Date Michael was an orange wine virgin until the wine director emerged with a skin-contact malvasia. Coming from the "heel" of the Italian Peninsula, this malvasia sits on the skins for seven days before being pressed, and as one writer described it, it's "a mouthful of sunshine." Cascades of ripe citrus acidity are fattened up by the grippy skin maceration, and waves of salinity bring to mind the sunny Mediterranean coast. I think Date Michael is hooked!
"Chef does filthy things with eggplant" the wine director says as he leaves the table, while simultaneously two more takes on classics, this time dips, arrive. Burnt eggplant babaganoush was perhaps the course of the evening. Accompanied by asparagus, pine nuts, and smoky harissa, this babaganoush was transformed through charring of the eggplant over the embers into a truly special, blackened delight. Of course, one can't leave a Levantine dining room without hummus, and Chef's silky permutation paired with mushrooms, local peas, and confit egg yolk was a formidable attempt at taking the crown for the best hummus I've had, but was upstaged by the spectacular babaganoush. A pillow of pita was the vehicle for the dips. Absolutely fantastic.
Navigating away from the Mediterranean but to a more obscure wine region, the wine director poured us a "veltlín," or grüner Veltliner, from Slovakia. Unlike many grüners I've sampled, this wine had a juicy ripeness, displaying succulent melon against a backdrop of searing acidity one would expect from the grape.
Two mains were to follow the procession of mezze at the beginning of the meal. With the grüner I expected seafood, and seafood it was! Snapper with wonderfully crisp skin lounged on a bed of crabmeat-spiked tabbouleh. Alongside was a blistered tomato and a sauce the constitution of which I did not manage to glean from the server. Seems I forgot to ask, and also forgot the dish in general, and for a reason––the second helping brought with the fish was a fried potato, cut into thin slices and served pave-style with chermoula-scented labneh. This should be served on its own, lest the other items on the table pale in comparison. With a crispy exterior and melty, buttery core, the potatoes were unbelievably good.
I am always thrilled to see a wine server bringing nebbiolo to my table. Piedmontese nebbiolo from Italy, such as Barolo or Barbaresco, constitutes the vast majority of the grape you find in restaurants and shops, but this wine was from the US's very own Santa Barbara County. Grown in the Santa Maria Valley and produced by Palmina, this nebbiolo was classic in style, with natural fermentation and no filtering. The result is a magnificently dynamic wine with characteristic red cherries anchored by vibrant spices and earthy umami.
The hearth is the lifeblood of this restaurant, so it stands to reason the final savory course would be cooked masterfully over the embers. Skewers of melty, smoky lamb belly dusted with black truffle oozed umami onto the palate, inviting bites of the fresh peas and asparagus and tangy spring onion labneh for contrast. Meanwhile, intensely flavorful lamb kefta made from minced lamb meat and spices and skewered onto cinnamon sticks provided a heady accompaniment to the rich belly skewers. Alongside was a lovely cucumber and tomato fatoush-style salad. An absolute knockout course.
Given our late arrival, they ferried us over to the bar area for dessert to clear up the hearth table for the next guests. We were greeted by the wine director, holding an impressive apparatus alongside a stupid-old bottle of Madeira on his tray. The wine was poured into a decanter and a cap housing a little mound of wood placed atop, which the wine director promptly lit with a torch so smoke could fill the decanter. An elevation of an already excellent wine.
"Bak-foie-gras" had come to my attention during my pre-dinner research as yet another fantastic example of the ways Chef Michael puts his spin on classic Mediterranean dishes––this time, baklava. Sesame-crusted seared foie gras sat on a stack of flaky phyllo dough and sweet pistachio crumble, and alongside a pool of date molasses carried a candied and torched strawberry. With the Madeira in particular, this was one of the best dessert courses I've had in recent memory.
To close out the pairings, we were privileged to sample a winemaking region neither I nor Date Michael had experienced––the Canary Islands. While wine has been grown on this Spanish archipelago west of Africa for centuries, a modern winemaking culture has only just started to emerge in the last few decades. The climate is challenging and requires vines to be planted at higher altitudes. The high wind means the yields are particularly low and the wines even more special. From a height of nearly two feet, our wine director poured this malvasia volcánica for maximum oxygen contact to let the fabulous aromas come to the fore. Intensely sweet but acidic and saline, this was a wine for the books. I'll have to check out more Canary Islands wine!
Two desserts closed the meal. The first was a beguiling presentation of a honeyed nest of fried phyllo dough upon which rested a lovely lemon sorbet with pistachio crumble. Finally, Albi's famous labneh soft serve closed the meal, swirled with Lebanese olive oil and pomegranate molasses. Divine. But wait; there's more! Cookies were a last bite––mouthwatering cardamom shortbread.
Albi's sofra menu is among the more impressive meals I've been lucky enough to enjoy. For a rather reasonable price for food of this caliber, you are graced with some of the finest cooking being done in the country––ceaselessly inventive, seasonally driven, and rooted in tradition. I would not hesitate to recommend Albi for anyone visiting DC with a taste for exciting food. With the dining room transitioning to exclusively tasting menu experiences in the next month, the possibilities to sample Chef Michael's sofra offering are more accessible than ever.
We've got two back-to-back dinners at two of the most highly acclaimed restaurants on the east coast (and in the country/world!) forthcoming, and the philosophies of these places could not be more different. Stick with me!