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At long last, Albi gets to the heart of Levantine cooking

Crispy-skin black bass with crab, blistered grapes and chermoula spice at Albi in the Navy Yard neighborhood. (Deb Lindsey/for The Washington Post)

For much of his career, Michael Rafidi has cooked American (Blue Duck Tavern) or French (the late Requin, RN74 in San Francisco). At Albi, his debut restaurant in Navy Yard, the Maryland native is showcasing some of the food he grew up on but didn’t always appreciate in his youth. One can imagine the peer pressure when other kids were eating ham sandwiches at school and your mom sent you off with hummus.

Rafidi is long past that phase, thank goodness, and embracing his Palestinian roots — cooking what he knows, oh so well, in a handsome stage set of a kitchen that forgoes gas in favor of charcoal-fed fire. The chef’s partner in the project, four years in the making, is Brent Kroll, the wine ace behind Maxwell Park in Shaw.

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If you’re anything like me, you’ll start ordering dinner at Albi (“my heart” in Arabic) as you’re led to your seat. A glance at one table has me mentally asking for an open-faced meat pie in the shape of a fat cigar. I’ll also have to try the baba ghanouj, black as tar and scooped up with balloon-shaped bread that everyone seems to be inhaling. A starburst of ruffled dumplings in glistening red oil finds me practically requesting manti before I’m even handed a menu.

Novices to the food, updated here and there to reflect current fashions, are put at ease with a little table tent describing Levantine ingredients. The cigar-shaped snack is sfeeha, plied with crumbled duck, tomato and onion and served with a dollop of toum, that wonderful whip of garlic, olive oil and lemon juice. There’s no better pairing of bread and spread in the neighborhood, save perhaps for Albi’s sumac-speckled chickpea dip with a well of liquefied charred broccoli. Rafidi’s hot pita, made with labneh and potatoes and brushed with zesty za’atar oil, is some of the best in memory.

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Rafidi has a secret weapon in his grandmother, who he says he texts whenever he has a question about how something should taste. The combination of her wisdom and his talent yields plenty of happy moments in the restaurant. A list of musts would embrace the “burnt” baba ghanouj sweetened with tomato molasses; the steamed manti stuffed with ground spiced lamb and warmed with chile oil; and smoky grilled lamb ribs, crisp and sticky from brushes with a glaze of dates and molasses. Carrots get their crackle from dukka; custard comes in a fab baklava flavor.

Thanks to Kroll, who opened a second Maxwell Park next to Albi shortly after the restaurant launched last month, what goes in the glass is as intriguing as what’s on the plate. His 200-bottle wine list roams around France, Lebanon, Turkey and elsewhere, playing up “savory” (saline) whites flavored by the air of their associated vineyards and “smoky” reds that suit so much of the food coming off Albi’s fire.

The light-filled space is as enticing as the food. Green plants and picture windows take you somewhere sunny, while old rugs warm up concrete floors. The most alluring detail is a 50-foot mural surrounding the open kitchen. Rafidi recruited a French artist whose work he admired on Instagram to paint a picture of characters holding hands, a whimsical scene with a warm message, at least until coronavirus came along. The orchestra seats are in the kitchen, at a communal table that can seat up to 10 diners and puts observers in the middle of the action.

Wherever you find yourself at Albi, however, feels right. Rafidi is back in the kitchen, cooking from the heart.

1346 Fourth St. SE. 202-921-9592. albidc.com. Plates to share, $13 to $45.

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