COVID-19 Closure: Please note, this review was written pre-coronavirus closure. As of press time, Albi’s dining room remained closed per DC government orders. The restaurant is offering takeout and delivery Wednesday to Sunday with limited lunch and dinner menus, plus wine, cocktails and market items. Please check the restaurant’s website for more information and the latest updates.
Opening a restaurant is always a labor of love. In the case of Michael Rafidi’s Albi, which opened this February in the District’s Navy Yard neighborhood, the name actually means “my heart” in Arabic. The chef, who worked with Michael Mina in San Francisco but made a name for himself locally at the now-closed Arroz, says he has gone back to his roots with this restaurant by honoring his Middle Eastern heritage.
Marrying the nostalgic food of childhood with the skills of a chef often brings about the most beguiling results, and that’s definitely the case at Albi. A meal here starts with pickles, labneh and an herb-dusted pita balloon that exhales steam when you poke into it, all signifying the theme of Rafidi’s refined take on Levantine food.
Following this gift from the kitchen, the must-order dish here is the foie gras parfait with apricots, turmeric honey and a pillowy “urfa-thing” bagel sporting a sprinkle of spices including urfa chiles. The rich yet light and creamy bar of foie gras brings to mind a miraculous dish Rafidi had on the menu at Arroz, where it was accented by sesame butter, mission figs and burnt honey, and served with an addictive ras el hanout doughnut. This latest version will have you contemplating ordering another round for dessert.
You can’t order wrong here, but there are a few other dishes that stand out from the pack. Beet kibbeh nayeh is a fun play on the version traditionally made with raw lamb (also available on the menu). Wrap the chopped beets mixed with bulgur wheat in a lettuce leaf with sliced jalapeño, cucumber and red onion topped with a smear of toum (garlic spread) for a fresh DIY starter.
Head-on grilled prawns bathing in a spicy, garlicky sauce of tomatoes, peppers and eggplant is another excellent choice, and meat lovers will want to order the barbecue lamb trio, if only for a taste of the outstanding date-glazed lamb ribs. Or order “all the kebobs”—which included New York strip and duck one night—cooked over coals, taken off the skewer tableside and served over flatbread with mounds of different pickled veggies and a couple of complementary sauces.
Even if you haven’t saved room for dessert, order it anyway. Pastry chef Gregory Baumgartner gets it just right with his brown butter knafeh, a pad of sheep’s milk cheese crusted with shredded phyllo and punched up with orange blossom and pistachio. Soft serve also deserves your attention. It comes in two flavors: light, bright labneh topped with pomegranate and olive oil or nutty tahini partnered with halva, roasted sesame and an oat caramel.
My advice? Get in here before the national publications start festooning Albi with accolades. There’s a lot to love.
Colorful tiles in friendly hues of yellow and blue draw the eye—that is, until you catch sight of the flames coming from the hearth. If the table in the kitchen isn’t booked, ask if you can sit there for a front-row seat. After your meal, migrate over to Maxwell Park, the wine bar next door. It’s run by Brent Kroll, who also crafted the thoughtful wine list at Albi.
Foie gras parfait with an “urfa-thing” bagel; beet kibbeh nayeh; grilled prawns with fermented harissa; barbecue lamb platter; labne soft serve with pomegranate honey. // 1346 Fourth St. SE, Washington, DC; Open for dinner Tuesday–Sunday; Starters: $7-$19; Entrees: $24-$70