After nearly four years in the works, one of the most highly anticipated DC restaurant openings is here. Albi, a wood-fired, Eastern Mediterranean venture from chef Michael Rafidi and wine whiz Brent Kroll, opens in Navy Yard on Thursday, February 20.
The duo, both rising stars in their fields, have put together an ambitious venture that combines cooking from Rafidi’s Mid-Atlantic and Middle Eastern roots, Kroll’s clever wine sourcing (he’s also behind Shaw boîte Maxwell Park), and cocktails from Chris Francke, owner of Middle Eastern drinking destination The Green Zone. Here’s what to know before you go.
The kitchen runs on wood fire
Rafidi grew up in Maryland cooking with his Palestinian grandfather and Jordanian grandmother, who still lives in Germantown. “I text her all the time, she’s like the secret weapon here,” says Rafidi. His own style, first tasted in DC when he helmed the kitchen at the now-closed Arroz and Requin, mixes bold, rustic flavors with a fine-dining touch. He spent six years with Bourbon Steak restaurateur Michael Mina at RN74 in San Francisco and elsewhere.
For Albi, which means “my heart” in Arabic, Rafidi set up the challenge of running a 100-percent wood-fired kitchen (a style also adopted by The Dabney). The menu of grilled seafood, kebobs, stews, vegetables, and fresh breads all emerge from the hearth. Fans of Rafidi’s foie doughnut from the Arroz days will find a parallel play here: foie gras parfait that you spread on an urfa-spiced “everything” bagel. That said, Rafidi says “the dishes that aren’t the prettiest are my favorite”—think brisket-filled grape leaves, stuffed cabbages in smoky mushroom broth, or sfeeha, open-faced meat pies.
Feasts are group-friendly
The a la carte menu is set up to share between homemade sweet potato pitas and dips, a bounty of small plates, and platters designed for two-to-four such as barbecued lamb or shawarma-style kebabs with all the fixings. Larger groups can book the sofra, which means “set table” in Arabic, which sits in the kitchen and fits eight to ten diners. Meals there ($95 per person plus a $55 beverage pairing) are designed around the season and the chef’s whims, though groups can make personal requests like more vegetables or seafood over meat.
You’ll have salty and smoky wine pairings
“People saying they want to bring unique wines to a wine program is like a chef saying he wants to do farm-to-table—it means something different to whoever the professional is,” says Kroll. For him, it means DMing Middle Eastern winemakers on Instagram and working with specialty importers like Borderless Wine Alliance to get bottles you won’t see elsewhere in DC—or the United States. Kroll adopted similar methods when he built the Greek and Mediterranean wine list at Iron Gate. Here you’ll find options like Lebanese Pet-Nat (a.k.a. LebNat), Armenian sparkling wine alongside French Champagne, and sections devoted to “salty whites” and “smoky reds” that marry with flavors from the fire.
“In wine training we have a thing called ‘Switzerland-type pairings,’ They get along and are very neutral. I try to not do that so much. I like layering different flavors,” says Kroll.
Opening soon: Maxwell 2.0 and a daytime cafe
A second location of Kroll’s smash hit Shaw wine bar Maxwell Park is set to open in March. The 30-seat space adjoins the restaurant and will serve cheese, charcuterie, snacks, and more of Kroll’s “fun stuff, rare stuff, stuff where the city only gets a couple of cases.”*
Also on the horizon: Yellow, a daytime cafe that will set up in Albi’s private dining area with coffee drinks and fresh baked goods from Albi pastry chef Gregory Baumgartner. The restaurant also plans to serve brunch down the line—another good excuse for that foie gras bagel.
Albi. 1346 Fourth St., SE; 202-921-9592. Open Tuesday through Sunday for dinner (closed Mondays).
*This post has been updated from an earlier version.