NOTE: I was able to have dinner in the Albi dining room a week prior to the current restrictions on dining out, as the review below reflects. If you cannot be bothered to read the whole thing, (including a brief aside which may explain why I like dogs more than people,) know that the restaurant is open for carryout Wednesday-Sunday from 4 p.m. – 8 p.m (and you can pre-order between 12 p.m. and 4 p.m. by calling 202-921-9592 or by emailing [email protected]). You can check out the to-go menu here. And you better believe I confirmed: beer and wine is available to go. Finally, while turbulent times often cause us to think of conserving resources, I encourage you to donate to various food banks in the DC area, including some new ad hoc operations set up to support restaurant industry staff who are out of a job for however long this lasts. You can also tip them directly through Venmo; find their handle on the DC Virtual Tip Jar Google Doc.
I spent my childhood shuttling back and forth from D.C. to the Eastern Shore of Maryland. I’m not bragging, nor do I lament straddling the eighty or so miles between the city and farm life*. This meant spending weekdays in a duplex in Chevy Chase and my weekends trailing behind my grandfather through the fields as he’d pick snap peas off the vine or raspberries from the bush to check whether they were ripe. Our neighbors in the duplex were an older couple, Wajdi and Hind, and they ran a small Lebanese catering company out of their kitchen. I couldn’t tell you what I had for breakfast yesterday, but I can vividly remember perching on a kitchen counter, devouring trays of baked kibbeh, and packing my cheeks full of awamat and jelabi. I used to hate eating vegetables at home. I’d eat broccoli, only if I was told I was a little dinosaur, and I needed to eat the “trees.” It never occured to me to try the vegetables Hind would roast; I actively and vocally abhorred eggplant. So it was with a mixed sense of curiosity and trepidation I sat down to dinner at Albi in Navy Yard. Chef Michael Rafidi’s menu reads like a meeting of the two sides of my childhood united- Mid-Atlantic ingredients in Levant recipes.
Dinner at Albi began with a series of bites and hummuses (is that the plural of hummus?) A plate of pickled carrots, turnips, and turmeric cabbage came alongside z’hug topped labneh, balled up like ciliegine. It was the first indication of how wrong I was to eschew vegetables as a child. Similarly, the arayes, a sort of Lebanese arepa were stuffed with ground eggplant and crusted on the open sides with chili flake. Yet another giant, flashing indicator of how good eggplant can be. The cinnamon kefta, a bite of ground lamb wrapped around a cinnamon stick, was intensely seasoned, and I thought was better than the kefta kebobs later in the meal. From the first bite to the last, I found myself enjoying the meat dishes, and obsessing over the vegetables, including the mushroom shish kebob. I still don’t like raw mushrooms, though had we not been sharing plates, I would have been eating these like a cartoon, one skewer after another disappearing into my maw.
This was followed by some of my favorite dishes of the night: a beet “salad” and sweet and sumac carrots. The beets were buried in embers to roast, and topped with crushed walnuts and kashkaval cheese, looking like a ring of volcanic islands in a shallow pool of pomegranate syrup. The combination of beets, nuts, and cheese makes me picture sad hotel salads, this version felt new but comforting. Likewise, the sumac-seasoned roast carrots served with sheep’s milk yogurt and dukka tasted like a forward thinking version of an old standby.
Turning back to the meat options: while the kebobs are delicious- particularly the duck breast kebob (oh that duck fat,) the smoked chicken is better. It’s served spatchcocked, covered in pomegranate barbecue sauce and sitting atop charred greens. Best among them though were the lamb ribs. Rafidi noted they were seasoned with pastrami spices and slicked with date barbecue sauce. I know a thing or two about pastrami rub; this was something special.
At this point, the entire table sighed contentedly, unable to eat another bite. Then dessert arrived. Knafeh, a bird’s nest of delicate, brown butter-fried dough threads covered in crushed pistachios and a quenelle of whipped cheese, floating in orange blossom syrup. A baklava custard with walnut honey ice cream, phyllo shards, and date syrup. A pair of soft-serve ice cream parfaits, the better of the two being the tahini which tasted like a refined peanut butter milkshake. Finally, a golden yellow ma’amoul, to accompany the check.
I’ve been trying to shoehorn in something about the wine list, it deserves a special mention. Brent Kroll, formerly of Iron Gate’s award-winning wine program, is for the sake of brevity, the man. A sparkling riesling from Red Tail Ridge in New York brought to mind a Lucky Peach article about apricot varietals. It was second only to a glass of 2006 Chateau Musar, a Lebanese wine from the Bekaa valley, which may prove to be the best glass of wine I drink this year.
Perhaps because Mid-Atlantic cuisine tends to be a hodgepodge, it’s largely ignored in loftier culinary circles. The ingredients are in a sense, fungible. Going back to the pre-colonial era it was English and French dishes cooked with local ingredients- including game and seafood, and West African influences more common in Lowcountry cuisine. Moving forward, it picked up elements of Appalachian cooking and Pennsylvania Dutch recipes, especially forcemeats (I love you, scrapple,) Italian and eastern European Jewish dishes. But, as my epitaph may one day read, I digress. It’s a bit surprising to me this is the first time I can recall someone unabashedly marrying the Mid-Atlantic with Lebanese food. At least now I know where to go the next time a craving strikes, likely sooner rather than later.
*A wildly unnecessary anecdote, but I have a brand new nephew and wanted to tell this story anyway: I asked my parents this weekend what new baby technology most impressed them, and my father’s response was the car seat. Not that they didn’t have car seats four decades ago, but now they have bases so baby carriers lock in and become car seats, with levels and mirrors to watch the child in a rear-facing back seat. Apparently my first baby carrier was a five gallon bucket full of blankets. He’d swaddle me, load me up, pack blankets around like a sabot, and carry the bucket around the farm. If it was cold, I was plopped down with the hunting dogs to share their body heat.