Michelin-starred chef Michael Rafidi will bring not one, but two, exciting new Levantine ventures to the booming Union Market district next summer.
After wowing Navy Yard with za’atar-dusted pastries for nearly three years at his cafe Yellow, Rafidi will plant a 4,000-square-foot flagship, test kitchen, and wood-fired grill on the ground floor of an old meatpacking warehouse (417-419 Morse Street NE).
“Everything is going to start at that [Yellow] location as far as development,” says Rafidi. “At night we’re going to have some fun with kick ass kebabs and natural wines.”
Right above Yellow’s new supersized headquarters, he plans to open a lively, “habibi funk” rooftop oasis called La’ Shukran. The 80-seat party pad, accessed through a semi-secret alleyway, will feature a dining room, bar, big patio, and late-night DJs spinning Middle Eastern music. La’ Shukran — which translates to “no thank you” in Arabic — strives to be “a really funky, high-energy Levantine cocktail bar with a lot of bistro feels,” he says. A headphones-wearing cartoon camel is the mascot of the delightfully playful project.
The beverage program at La’ Shukran will showcase lots of Levantine wines and arak — a popular Middle Eastern distilled spirit with cooling notes of anise and licorice. Rafidi tapped longtime friend and fellow Michael Mina alum Radovan Jankovic as a partner at La’ Shukran. Jankovic is best known as drinks director at Residents, Dupont’s stylish, day-to-night Mediterranean cafe with one of the best espresso martinis in the city.
“Nobody says cocktail bars can’t have awesome food too,” says Jankovic, who helped Residents rise to Michelin Bib Gourmand status this year.
Yellow, Rafidi’s respected bakery that marries Levantine flavors with French patisserie staples, currently operates out of a canary-colored space within his wood-burning Middle Eastern marvel Albi, one of Eater’s Best New Restaurants in America that picked up its first Michelin star this year. A second Yellow cafe, scheduled to arrive in Georgetown next month, will continue to riff on recipes taken from the Palestinian side of his family and research trips through Lebanon.
Yellow’s flagship will produce all the breads and pastries for La’ Shukran upstairs, but the stacked venues will operate separately with their own entrances. Rotating small plates that speak to French influences on Levantine culture could include shawarma frites, hummus served with French baguettes, and escargot.
“A new menu will be written every day — it’ll be the best of what we can get our hands on,” says Rafidi.
Rafidi’s idea for a Yellow home base with his dream cocktail bar up top was cooking for two years but wasn’t ready to be discussed until now. Construction is expected to start early next year with a hopeful summer opening, he adds. Natalie Park Design Studio (Anju, Gravitas) will put together the two-tiered look while retaining the character of the industrial-styled warehouse that reminded Rafidi of Beirut. It’s located across from Stephen Starr’s steakhouse St. Anselm, where Rafidi’s close friend and Top Chef alum Marjorie Meek-Bradley mans the menu.
Sommelier William Simons, Albi’s wine director since day one, will curate the list in Union Market.
“We’re putting together a dynamic and vibrant wine program to match the overall mood and atmosphere of the space,” says Simons.
Like Albi, the wine list at La’ Shukran will favor “ethical farming practices and smaller producers of the Arabic-speaking world,” says Simons. Albi has singlehandedly helped put underrepresented wine regions in Lebanon, Palestine, and Turkey on the map in D.C., and its list has tripled to 300 bottles since opening in early 2020. Look for around 100 bottles and a big by-the-glass list of 20 to 30 options in Union Market.
Whereas Albi pulls movie references to define wine categories (think: “Donnie Darko” reds), nightlife-driven La’ Shukran plans to tap into its love for music to create themes around its skin-contact whites and orange wines.
“It’ll be fun to build another iteration in a different form, from the ground up,” says Simons.
On the cocktail side, Jankovic says he looks forward to embracing hot Arabic coffees and traditional brewing methods, herbal teas, cardamom, and spices. He also plans to pay homage to the Middle East’s non-drinking culture with mocktails and a zero-proof version of arak.