Michael Rafidi can confidently say these are not his grandmother’s meat pies. The sfeeha the former Eater D.C. Chef of the Year is making at Albi, his modern Middle Eastern restaurant that opens tonight in Navy Yard, start with a pita dough that integrates labneh and potato flour. The chef and co-owner tops skinny slices with dollops of spiced ground duck, carefully folds in edges to form a puffy crust, and uses a pizza peel to slide them into the mouth of a wood-burning oven. When he pulls them back out, he garnishes them with pine nuts, lemon squeezes, and a side of toum (whipped garlic).
Rafidi still asks his grandma for advice on making sfeeha — she texts him a reminder to use allspice and black pepper, tagged with a, “Love you, habibi” — but there’s only so much she could accomplish with a conventional oven when Rafidi was growing up around Gaithersburg, Maryland.
At Albi (1346 Fourth Street SE), Rafidi is exploring the food of his Palestinian and Jordanian relatives, and their neighbors throughout the Levant region. There are hummus plates, some topped with bits of confit lamb awarma or grilled mushrooms, and heaping kebab plates meant to feed three to four ($58) with meats and vegetables grilled over a hearth. Although Rafidi went to Lebanon to study traditional Middle Eastern cooking — at one point getting pulled over because kilogram packages of sfeeha in his car had drawn the suspicion of local authorities — his menu at Albi isn’t attempting to preserve history.
It’s full of artful plating, Mid-Atlantic produce, and ingredients that might make his granny scoff. He’s fully prepared to rebuff his mom and aunts when they tell him he’s using too much salt and too much fat.
Rafidi likens his manti, bite-size Turkish meat dumplings, to pot-stickers because he likes to crisp up the bottoms in a cast iron skillet over an induction burner before moving them to the oven and supplying some steam with an urfa pepper broth containing a splash of olive brine.
A small plate of foie gras and halva ( a sweet tahini confection) comes with an “urfa-thing” bagel. Rolled grape leaf dolmas full of rice, smoked cinnamon, and tomatoes look traditional, but they’re stuffed with smoked brisket instead of ground beef.
A $95 hearth table menu brings the chef’s tasting menu that will allow him to test out new dishes on customers who get a prime view of the open kitchen.
Rafidi also wants to experiment with vegetarian versions of staples. Beets that have been left in the oven overnight slow-roast over embers before getting processed in a meat grinder. It’s an alternative for people who want kibbeh naya but don’t want to order the raw minced lamb version on the menu. Celery root vacuum packed with turmeric is sliced thin and grilled kebab style.
Pastry chef Gregory Baumgartner has received coaching from Rafidi on Middle Eastern desserts spanning from recognizable cookies and pastries to more ambitious tweaks, like a “baklava” cinnamon custard with phyllo shards and walnut honey ice cream, or soft serve in smoked halva and labneh flavors that might get dressed with pomegranate syrup.
Rafidi’s partner in the restaurant, longstanding D.C. sommelier Brent Kroll, oversees a wine program that brings on grapes from Palestine, Israel, Lebanon, Turkey, and Georgia. A second location of Kroll’s hit wine bar, Maxwell Park, will open next-door to Albi in a few weeks.
Chris Francke, the owner of essential Middle Eastern cocktail bar the Green Zone in Adams Morgan, has come up with mixed drinks for Albi such as a Jaffa orange screwdriver and a chai spiked with Jamaican rum.
As a first-time owner, Rafidi is learning to navigate operational headaches. Case in point: Last week, he was in the middle of a back-and-forth with a contractor over huge mirrors that cracked as soon as they were installed. Local firm Grupo7 designed the space that anchors a corner of the Guild luxury apartment building. The 76-seat main dining room features steel doors and concrete floors contrasting with wood tables, patterned tiles, and a 50-foot mural from Parisian artist Lucas Beaufort.
Rafidi has held demanding jobs before, working at the demanding, high-volume kitchen at the Blue Duck Tavern and rising through the ranks of Michael Mina’s group as a chef in Baltimore and San Francisco. He drew praise in D.C. for playing with French food at Requin and Spanish-Moorish plates at Arroz, where he introduced D.C. to his burnt eggplant dip and says he was sprinkling za’atar over numerous plates even though it doesn’t have much to do with Morocco.
This is the first time he’s cooking his family’s food in a professional setting. The project has taken two years to complete. Even though he’s committed to doing it his way, he says he’s feeling more pressure than he’s ever felt to get it right.
“I don’t want to fuck this up,” he says.
- An Eater Award Winner Opens His Hearth-Fueled Middle Eastern Restaurant Next Week [EDC]
- Michael Rafidi Reveals Plans For His First Restaurant Since Leaving Isabella [EDC]
- Albi Pop-Up Offers First Taste of Former Arroz Chef’s Solo Project [EDC]
- Star Chef at Arroz and Requin Resigns From Mike Isabella’s Restaurant Group [EDC]