River Oaks Restaurant Albi Brings Elegant Middle Eastern Fare to Houston
If you’ve been in Houston long enough, you’re familiar with the palm tree-lined streets of the West Gray corridor and will recognize the building at 1947 West Gray, home to the Men’s Wearhouse. Hidden just above it is a new, upscale, restaurant called Albi. It pays homage to the Levant, a region of the Middle East along the eastern Mediterranean shores where there is a mix of Lebanese and Turkish cuisine.
There is a familiar name behind Albi, the Fakhoury brothers, Nano and Jimy, who also own Mary’z Mediterranean. The duo and their partner Aladdin Nimri opened Albi in early May, following suit with the trend of other live entertainment hot spots. In fact, they worked with architect Adel Sadek, who was recently involved with the opening of another “vibe dining” concept, Ciel.
Named after the Arabic word, “my heart”, a common expression of love, Albi indeed evokes romance in every inch of the 6,600 square foot space. Guests are welcomed by a rose-covered wall, deep ruby red tones and gold accents. The dimly lit space is set aglow with sparkling, bejeweled chandeliers, mirrors and ambient lighting. The space is enrapturing, and if it weren’t for the large windows that overlook West Gray, you’d almost forget where you are.
To incorporate fine dining elements into the menu, the owners consulted with chef Mark Cox, who formerly ran his eponymous restaurant Mark’s and, more recently, was a partner in now-closed Maize. Albi’s kitchen is helmed day-to-day by executive chef Christian Hernandez, formerly chef de cuisine of March. The menu is made up of dishes with traditional Eastern Mediterranean flavors that also incorporate fresh, sustainable and local products including Texas Wagyu, lamb and seasonal seafood and produce. All the meat is certified halal, meaning that it is prepared according to Islamic law.
Houston Food Finder was invited to visit in the early days of Albi’s opening. We sampled salads, cold and hot mezza (a collection of small plates that make up a meal — similar to Spanish tapas) and main courses. It’s not surprising that two of the best dishes were from the cold mezza, one of them being a dish that Mary’z does so well: classic hummus. The creamy purée of cooked chickpeas and tahini paste was smooth and had just enough punch of garlic and the right amount of acid to balance it out. The Beets bil Tahini is an amplified version of traditional beet dip and with deepened flavors thanks to salt-baking the beetroot and adding pickled berries for an acidic touch.
The Bluefin Tuna Tartar with aleppo pepper (a Mediterranean chili powder made from dried Halaby peppers) and apricot coulis is as delicious as it is beautiful. A ring of tartar is nestled in a bed of greens with the coulis resting inside, resembling an egg yolk and topped with a woven twill. The pepper adds a hint of smokiness that contrasts with the sweetness of the apricot, making for a very satisfying bite. A basket of pillowy soft fresh baked pita bread accompanied the cold starters, making for a great start to the meal.
The hot mezza selections are fresh takes on classic dishes, such as the Manakesh (a Lebanese pizza) and veal kefta (mixture of ground meat shaped into a ball or patty).The King Trumpet Mushroom Shawarma with tzatziki and charred lemon was the best dish of the night. Grilling the firm and meaty mushrooms added an even deeper richness to the nutty flavor, and the tangy tzatziki added a refreshing note. Served open-faced, we squeezed some charred lemon onto the mushroom and ate it like a makeshift taco.
I rarely order chicken when I dine out, but I’d happily order the Jidori Chicken Roulade again. It’s a rolled chicken breast stuffed with housemade turmeric and chicken sausage and served alongside a rice bowl with caramelized onion purée, golden raisins and pine nuts. The chicken is rolled in its skin, and the exterior is fried until it is golden and crisp, and the meat of the free-range chicken is tender and moist. The turmeric is not overpowering, instead adding just a touch of earthiness. The rice is both savory and sweet, and it works well with the flavor profiles of the chicken.
I expected the Lavender Lamb Rack with braised cauliflower, muhammara (roasted red pepper dip) and zhoug (cilantro sauce) to be a knockout, but it was the least successful. The rack of lamb was not properly frenched (a butchery procedure where the meat is cut away from the end of a rib or chop so that part of the bone is exposed), leaving much of the fat on the bones. We had to cut around the excess fat which left us with little meat. The meat itself was tender, but I could not pick up any hint of lavender or any other herbs. The combination of the roasted red pepper dip and cilantro sauce felt muddled, and I would have preferred to have just one or the other.
Dessert options include Lemon Halvah Tart, made from crystallized sesame paste and sugar, with pomegranate meringue and olive oil and lemon ice cream, Basque cheesecake with saffron gelée and vanilla-infused brandy, and a Pistachio Tiramisu.
Beverage consultant and former head mixologist at Musaafer, Souvik Dasgupta, curated Albi’s cocktail program. The cocktails will be seasonally driven and heavily incorporate Mediterranean flavor profiles. The Shah of Sunset is made with arak (a clear spirit from the Levant that is flavored with anise), lime, sugar, Topo Chico, hibiscus tea and mint. The arak is very prominent in the cocktail, and while there is a sweetness to it, the strong licorice notes may not be for everyone. The Waters of Petra, made with cardamom gin-infused rosewater, elderflower and Champagne foam was the highlight. The herbal and floral notes were just enough without being too perfume-forward. It was a beautiful representation of strong components being used in a thoughtful way. The Turkish Espresso Martini, a concoction of cinnamon-infused vodka and Turkish coffee, and the Baklava Old-Fashioned with baklava elixir, demerara sugar and walnut bitters, make for pleasant after-dinner drinks.
Wine enthusiasts should be pleased, as Albi serves more than 90 kinds. The list focuses on countries around the Mediterranean such as Lebanon, Italy, France, Spain and Greece with bottle prices ranging between $60 and $120.
Albi is a beautifully appointed space. The mood is immediately set when you walk in, from the lights to the DJ that spins pulsating music and the belly dancers that entertain guests as they dine. It is an ideal setting for food that is striking and almost sensual in its use of spices and flavors. Just as the space is romantic and sexy, so is the food.
Albi is currently open for dinner Tuesday through Thursday from 5 to 11 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Live entertainment typically starts at 9 p.m. Thursday to Saturday and there is a late night menu of bar snacks served from 10:30 p.m. to 1:15 a.m. on Friday and Saturday. Reservations are recommended and can be made on Resy.
Minh Truong is an avid lover of the Houston food scene and has written about it since 2011, starting as a freelance contributor for the Houston Press. She never stops exploring all that Houston has to offer.