A 50-seat outpost of Baltimore’s Café Filí opened Monday near Union Station, serving a menu of Mediterranean dishes that have proven popular at the original in Maryland and at the owner’s first Washington restaurant, dearly departed Café Olé.
Scramblers — scrambled eggs served with toasted barbari bread and roasted potatoes — are among the breakfast items that Ziad Maalouf brought over from Baltimore. Greek, Italian, American, and Turkish versions call for olives and feta, goat cheese, bacon, or soujouk sausage and Aleppo pepper.
Lunch at Café Filí (701 Second Street NE) brings on mainstays from Café Olé’s 20-year run in Tenleytown. That includes six salads — spanning from niçoise and Caesar to fatoosh and Mediterranean lamb — and four panini, stuffed with items like chicken Marrakesh or short rib grilled cheese. Grain bowls, strong sellers in Baltimore, are vehicles for falafel and lamb or chicken shawarma.
At 4 p.m., Maalouf pulls a literal curtain down on the café, and shifts his focus to a full-service dining room.
Dinner, which officially starts tonight, is full of dishes developed by Maalouf new chef, Karmah Tabbaa. He hired her on the spot to run the kitchens at both of Café Filí’s locations after sampling her acorn squash, cod kebabs, and eggplant and honey nut squash dips.
“I was blown away by her cooking,” Maalouf says. “All this layering of flavors and spices.”
The restaurant uses about 40 different spices in its cuisine, and Tabbaa makes most of the spice concoctions herself, like the shawarma and chermoula, using techniques she learned from both of her grandmothers — one is Palestinian and the other one is Syrian.
Tabbaa grew up in Jordan near the Mediterranean Sea. Her training includes stints at the three Michelin-starred Restaurante Akelarre in San Sebastián, Spain, the luxe InterContinental Geneva in Switzerland, and Restaurant 81 in Manhattan. After earning her bachelor’s degree from the Culinary Institute of America last year, Tabbaa worked as a line cook at Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s vegan abcV restaurant in Manhattan.
Maalouf raves about everything Tabbaa makes, but his “ultimate favorite” is lamb kafta served with eggplant in a tabil spice mix and pistachio dukkah.
Four of his Café Olé’s greatest hits reappear in the evening, too: Lebanese celebration, lamb tagine, lamb sliders, and shrimp in a crispy wrapper served with chermoula.
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Hannah Baker, director of the beverage program at Maalouf’s Baltimore gastropub the Tilted Row, developed four draft cocktails for Café Filí. The restaurant is also focusing on aged gin — it has 10 different bottles. Maalouf recommends the “Winter Filí G&T,” a draft cocktail made with gin, cloves, lime, tonic, and a Middle Eastern syrup the bar makes using orange, cloves, allspice and lemongrass.
A seven-day happy hour begins Monday with a $4 featured beer, a $6 featured wine, an $8 daily cocktail, and $2 off cocktails. Other future plans include opening a 35-seat patio next spring, and Maalouf says he’s scouting locations for more cafés.
“We want to stay here and local and hopefully do another two or three of them in the D.C. area,” he says. “Just basically wherever makes good business sense for us, we’ve got to go.”