Reality Bites: Albi, RASA, Hatoba, Emilie’s, Coconut Club

It’s fitting that as the temperature rises, more people are dipping their toes into social distancing with friends and family, shifting from grocery delivery to actual grocery shopping, and planning their return to restaurants as DC announces a plan to allow for outdoor service beginning today.

I’m not returning to in-house dining just yet, even if it means eating outside. I am content with my dash and dine routine, where I hit up a few restaurants at a time, based on a carefully crafted action plan. It makes me feel like I’m in an episode of “The Amazing Race.” My husband pulls up to the restaurant and waits in the car as I slip on a mask, rush over to the designated spot, grab the goods, and move on to the next destination.

I mourn the loss of experiential restaurant dining. It is a beautiful thing. But I am buoyed by DC area chefs who continue to instill their heritage and ingenuity into their food during a pandemic that could have completely crushed them. We’re living in an episode of Top Chef meets Survivor.

Albi

I dine at Albi not long before the world is upended. Chef Michael Rafidi’s highly-anticipated Middle Eastern restaurant at the Yards was a long time in the making. When it finally arrives, accolades quickly follow. The restaurant makes such an impression on me that I immediately schedule another visit. It takes me longer to return for obvious reasons, but I’m grateful for the opportunity.

Rafidi has scaled back the Albi menu for carryout and delivery. The good news is that the quality of his food remains exceedingly high. A three course, $40 per person dinner focuses on the chef’s Levantine roots. While it’s easy to slide into the doldrums these days, I’m uplifted by starters of Beiruti-style hummus with pea tahini and tomato fattoush dressed up with whipped labne, cucumber, and harissa.  I get an even bigger boost from the slightly sweet and tender barbecued lamb shoulder.

Albi takeout

Albi’s wood-fired oven is a focal point of the restaurant. It’s dispiriting to glimpse it from afar as I pick up my order. Housemade pita isn’t quite the same when it has to travel, but thick and smoky burnt eggplant baba ganoush is just as scintillating.  I love what Chef Michael Rafidi brings to the table, even if it happens to be in my own kitchen.

Albi is open for carryout and delivery, Wednesday through Sunday 11 am to 8:00 pm

Just announced -the opening of Yellow, Chef Rafidi’s Levantine café and bakery, adjacent to Albi. The carryout options include pastries, specialty coffees, mezze and sandwiches.

 Albi, 1346 4th St SE, Washington, DC 

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RASA

Part of my current restaurant strategy is to support owners and chefs who contribute time and energy to helping others. Sahil Rahman and Rahul Vinod of RASA are stellar examples of the good guys. They regularly serve free meals to furloughed employees and their families, school children, and hospital workers through their Feed the District fundraiser. One needs to look no further than their website to understand what they are about: “be kind to yourself, others, and we’ll get through this together.”

RASA is a fast-casual Indian restaurant located by the baseball stadium. The concept is familiar- choose your base, sauce, toppings, veggies, etc. or go with a variety of pre-designed bowls. The bright and complex flavor combinations and healthy ingredients steer patrons in a lively new direction from the typical fast-casual spot. I’m an avid fan.

Rahman and Vinod were just about to open RASA at Mount Vernon Square and Crystal City when the pandemic halted their progress. This doesn’t seem to slow these longtime friends down. They’ve likely witnessed the ups and downs of the business their entire lives, as their fathers Chef K.N. Vinod and Surfy Rahman have been business partners since the 1980’s in restaurants including Indique in DC and Bombay Bistro in Rockville.

I have a few RASA favorites that I always find soul-satisfying. Home Cooking combines turmeric ginger shrimp with tamarind chili sauce, Indian rice noodles, green beans, mango salsa, and mango coconut yogurt. I’m also a dedicated devotee of Open Sesame which delivers its punch with lamb, basmati rice, peanut sesame sauce, pickled onions, and mango coconut yogurt.  Caul Me Maybe is a vegan dream with tofu, cauliflower, peanut sesame sauce, sautéed spinach, cucumber, masala beets, sunflower seeds and lemon turmeric rice.

RASA (from the opening in 2017)

I like amping up the meal with some sides. There is naan to soak up sauteed spinach or beet raita, vegetable filled samosas, and a fine finish of masala chai cookies.  RASA has all the pandemic loot you need including hand sanitizer, toilet paper, and disposable gloves.

There is no baseball team to cheer on at the moment, but let’s hear it for the RASA guys. They manage to keep it real and hit it out of the park every time.

Open 11:00 am to 9:00 pm daily.

RASA, 1247 First Street SE, Washington, D.C

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Hatoba

The blog I was about to publish pre-pandemic centered on my secret love affair with Hatoba’s vegan tomato curry ramen. The Sapporo ramen-focused restaurant from the Daikaya Group (Daikaya, Bantam King, Haikan, and Tonari) steals my heart. I leave the restaurant in late January armed with a container of vegan ramen for my husband. Ultimately, I devour the luscious soup and destroy any evidence of its existence. Don’t judge me.

A trip dedicated to snagging carryout from Navy Yard restaurants means I can finally introduce my husband to the Hatoba hit. It’s as good as I remember, with a curry-tinged broth that is rich and exotic. A whole beefsteak tomato floats in the broth, requiring a plan of action on how best to approach it. I don’t mind a dish that plays hard to get, as long as the result is worth it. It is.

Carryout can be a challenge if you’re not eating the food immediately. Hatoba’s ramen holds up beautifully, even if you don’t eat it for a day or two. Ingredients are deconstructed and accompanied by instructions for easy reheating.

Hatoba tomato curry ramen

Hatoba is not a one hit wonder. Other ramen options include spicy miso, red miso clam, shio yuzu and shoyu. Plus there are donburi bowls, gyoza and canned alcoholic beverages.

Hatoba recently launched Yakisoba Make At Home Kits, which are perfect for grab and go. Yakisoba is a popular Japanese noodle stir-fry dish. Priced at $13 per kit, you get one package of noodles, sliced pork belly, sliced onions and bean sprouts, shredded cabbage and carrots, sauce (Shio, Shoyu, or Miso), aonori, and pickled ginger. Detailed step-by-step cooking instructions are included with each Yakisoba Kit.

There’s really so much to Cheer about at Hatoba!

Hatoba hours of operation for delivery and online orders are Sunday through Thursday Noon to 8:00 pm, and Friday and Saturday Noon to 9:00 pm.

Hatoba, 300 Tingey St SE #170, Washington, DC

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Emilie’s

Chef Kevin Tien opened Emilie’s on Capitol Hill in October 2019. I wrote a post about the restaurant not long after it opened, and launched a campaign to save the branzino. Tien was contemplating removing the fish dish from the menu, but it gained in popularity and remained there until the pandemic pivot.

Chefs have had to devise plans on how best to serve the public when carryout or delivery is the only option. Tien tossed most of Emilie’s menu aside, and turned to his heritage for inspiration. The result is a concise selection primarily centered on Vietnamese comfort food. Look for banh mi sandwiches with fried egg, lemongrass grilled chicken or pork. Also available are vegetable spring rolls, chicken larb salad with fish sauce, and jasmine rice bowls. One very welcome addition that strays from this theme is Tien’s popular Hot Lola’s Sichuan/Nashville-style fried chicken sandwich.

My visit to Emilie’s is driven by the desire for this sandwich, and I gobble it down in no time flat, roosting on a stoop across the street from the restaurant. The crunchy, lip-smacking, tongue-numbing sandwich tastes even better than I remember, and that’s saying a lot.

The array of delectables in Emilie’s online pantry could make me a Hoarder. Champon noodles, sourdough bread, Szechuan honey butter, garlic toum, white bean hummus, Mikey’s tomato sauce, and Autumn’s hot sauce beckon me back to my fridge a little too often.

Emilie’s also has an impressive grocery selection with meat and produce and the elusive bread flour. I regret not purchasing sourdough starter for $5. My husband’s attempt is languishing in the fridge.

Campfire Marshmallow Ice Cream from Emilie’s pastry chef Willa Pelini has me thinking about Love is Blind. This is the recent hit reality show where couples meet- and sometimes fall in love- before seeing each other face to face. I know I’m going to be bowled over by the smoky, rich, creamy ice cream before I ever taste it. Once we are properly introduced, I am besotted. I limit myself to one tablespoon a night to make it last longer. You can guess how well that strategy works.

Emilie’s campfire marshmallow ice cream

Emilies, 1101 Pennsylvania Avenue, SE, Washington, DC

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Coconut Club

Coconut Club patio

DC’s four time Chopped champion Chef Adam Greenberg is very vocal on social media about his current struggles to stay afloat. In many ways, he has become The Voice of the industry as he tweets concerns about landlords, PPP loans, staff safety, government regulations, and more.

Greenberg’s restaurant in the Union Market area of DC is Coconut Club. It’s one of the first restaurants to offer groceries, to-go cocktails, and an add-on pop-up- a sub shop called Crush Subbies.

The to-go menu features some of Coconut Club’s greatest hits including matzoh ball soup, spam fried rice, salmon poke, and my personal favorite- coconut chicken. The chicken is brined in coconut milk and packaged with a generous serving of rice and a seductively kicky sauce on the side. The restaurant’s island-inspired theme is about making people happy. It’s not easy when the food is separated from the jovial chef, his team, and the Coconut Club ambiance. It has to  do for now, and I’ll take it. You should too.

As DC restaurants prepare to open their patios, Greenberg expresses concerns. Recent Tweets:

  • No, I’m not trusting the mayor to tell me when it’s ok. I’ll wait and see, until the staff feels comfortable. We’re doing all the due diligence as if we were, so we are prepared when that time comes. Want to see the next two weeks play out. It’s not responsible to rush, for us.
  • I guess what I’m saying is, does bringing delivery drivers here compare to allowing guests on the patio? I’m no doctor, and I’m struggling every day to make the right decision, for the business and our people. I’m happy we openly discuss it, and it’s never about money.
  • I may be more present than others bc of social media, many many others doing the same. Others that do open may have very small staff and great procedures to make it work. There is no right or wrong, and I hope landlords are respecting businesses very personal decisions.

Coconut Club is open for takeout or delivery, Thursday-Saturday, 3:00 pm to 7:00 pm.

Coconut Club, 540 Penn St NE, Washington, DC

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My concerns about returning to restaurants echo those expressed by Chef Greenberg. The rules aren’t entirely clear, and there is no way to know how other diners will behave, which can have serious consequences for everyone. Navigating the “new normal” isn’t easy, and it will continue to shift. Reality bites. But it can still taste good.

 

 

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Send an email to lorisue6@gmail.com