A spectacular version can be found at Yellow, a daytime offshoot of the dinner-only, Levantine-inspired Albi in Navy Yard, where pastry chef Gregory Baumgartner came up with the bright idea of baking a spice-dusted tray with smoked wood chips. The fragrance infuses the cinnamon most of all, so that each flaky, sugary, buttery bite of kouign-amann tastes as if you’re enjoying it within sniffing distance of a gentle fire.
Line up (behind me) as well for one of the city’s best croissants — dipped in orange blossom syrup and as blissful as that sounds — and weekend-only “Urfa thing” bagels shaped as you might encounter them in the Middle East. The designation comes from what tops the pleasantly chewy, egg-washed oval bagel: smoky Urfa chile, toasted garlic, roasted sesame seeds — pretty much “everything.”
Things get even spicier after 10 in the morning. That’s when the menu at Yellow, formerly Albi’s private dining space, grows to include more savory dishes, including a shakshuka that will shake you awake with the tang of tomatoes, the torch of green harissa, the crunch of onions and an overlay of poached eggs whose yolks bleed richness. Try the weekend draw with the addition of nuggets of smoked short rib and use the accompanying pillowy pita, made with potatoes, as a sop for whatever a fork can’t retrieve from the foil container.
The pita sandwiches are crammed with goodness, too. Chicken thighs slathered with whipped garlic and labneh leave the coals smoky and succulent; chopped pickled cucumbers and green tomatoes help swell the filling. A lighter meal comes by way of a little raft of bread spread with crumbled lamb, red with minced tomatoes and red bell peppers, which a kindly staff member gifted me when she thought my order took too long one day. The garnish for this meat pie, sfeeha, is perfect: a lemon wedge pressed with za’atar.
Ayat Elhag oversees the liquid part of Yellow. The cafe manager makes convincing cases for drinking coffee laced with turmeric and honey (try it with oat milk) and apple cider mellowed with chai.
For someone who never went to culinary school and simply enjoyed the science behind baking, Baumgartner, who met chef-owner Michael Rafidi when both worked at the late Wit & Wisdom in Baltimore, is a pastry chef to follow. A single bite of his tahini caramel brownie, intense as fudge, is a revelation, so rich you don’t dare continue, except that you do. Regrets? I’ve had a chew.
Linked by a flavor profile, the cafe and the restaurant were designed to “bounce off each other,” says Rafidi. “Albi is more buttoned-up.” Yellow, in contrast, is breezy and bright. The name comes from yalla, the Arabic phrase for “let’s go,” says Rafidi, whose cohorts initially thought he was referencing the sunny color. “Yellow” stuck. Indeed, the friendly shade is everywhere in the small cafe and bakery, outside of which sit little green houses for grazing.
Bottom line: You say Yellow, I say yalla. 1346 Fourth St. SE. 202-921-9592. yellowthecafe.com. Open for takeout, delivery and outdoor dining 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Sweets $3.50 to $7, pita sandwiches and shakshuka $7 to $22. Delivery via Toast and Tock. Accessibility: No-step entrance and wheelchair-friendly restroom.
The chef-owner of the high-end Gravitas in Ivy City says he had a lot of other concepts in mind before the pandemic, “especially after the Michelin star,” the 2020 honor from the French taste maker. But Matt Baker’s most logical idea evolved from Gravitas’s success with takeout last spring, when he initially ditched fine dining for heartier comfort fare, what he calls “good simple food” that reflected what he liked to cook at home and didn’t subscribe to one style.
Rolled out in August, Baker’s Daughter is an all-day cafe and food retail shop conveniently located across the street from Gravitas in what had been a vacant art studio. (The name embraces Baker’s 1-year-old daughter, Lucy, and stepdaughter, Ava.) The bulk of the cooking is done at Gravitas and assembled for takeout or delivery at Baker’s Daughter, where “everything is on wheels,” says Baker, referring to the various counters, coolers and store shelves in the industrial setting. Clearly, he’s thinking of better times, when the space, currently outfitted with tables and chairs that can’t be used, might be cleared for private events. This frequent patron appreciates the optimism.
I like his wares at Baker’s Daughter even more. From summer on, the chef’s main courses have made regular appearances on my dining room table. Cold nights found me digging into robust beef short ribs on a mound of creamy polenta, scattered with fried shallots and alongside braised greens. Days when the scale reminded me that while the covid 10 is acceptable, the covid 15 should be avoided, resulted in the lighter but no less satisfying salmon, marinated in sesame oil and orange juice, roasted and mounted on white sushi rice. Along for the ride: mushrooms, green beans that retain some snap and fiery pickles — lean cuisine with an Asian lilt.
Sandwiches, which come with a choice of sides, enjoy a fair amount of real estate on the menu. Grab the classic jambon beurre, which layers a thick application of butter, Gruyere, cornichons and French ham inside a baguette. “I should have been born in France,” jokes Baker. Even better are his soups, which feel like complete meals going down. The Italian ribollita, for instance, packs in pork-fennel sausage, creamy cannellini beans and a garden of herbs. Grace notes of lemon zest, Parmesan and black pepper charge the pleasure.
If only I lived closer! Every whim — breakfast tacos, revivifying fruit-and-vegetable drinks, desserts including carrot cake and banana pudding — seems to be checked off at Baker’s Daughter, which also peddles such cheffy touches as pickled ramps and cilantro-lime vinaigrette.
The retail aspect of the operation hasn’t caught on yet, a situation Baker attributes to minimal foot traffic. Lack of business isn’t for lack of interesting products, however. A few friends on my Christmas gift list got fruit vinegars from Virginia’s popular Lindera Farms, and my pantry is better for the addition of pomegranate and molasses syrup. The labels on display are those Baker and his crew rely on at Gravitas; diners who praise, say, the restaurant’s cheese course might be directed to the cafe’s coolers, where the draws include subtly nutty, buttery Boxcarr Cottonseed made with goat and cow’s milk in North Carolina.
Care and holiday packages designed for two (thank you!) or more have been great successes for Baker’s Daughter, which sold 250 Thanksgiving orders. Expect more cafes from its creator, who is planning to open in Chinatown this winter.
The restaurateur’s original, pre-pandemic dreams for future endeavors are merely on pause, says Baker. There’s a French bistro in the cards, as well as a Mediterranean wine bar, along with a novelty that the chef says “goes against the grain” of expectations: “a steakhouse that doesn’t have beef.” Count me curious, open-minded and eager to slice in. 1402 Okie St. NE. 202-729-6990. bakersdaughterdc.com. Open for takeout and delivery daily from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Breakfast dishes, served all day, $8 to $12; lunch and dinner items, served from 11 a.m. on, $10 to $21. Delivery via Caviar, Grub Hub and Uber Eats. Accessibility: No-step entrance and ADA-compliant restroom.
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