From Jane Alonso. Her passion for food and spirits leads her on frequent excursions into Borderstan’s land of bars and restaurants. Email her at jane[AT]borderstan.com
Consider the many favorite cuisines that we DCers like to spend our money on — Japanese, Mexican, Thai, Ethiopian, Italian. How about adding Balkan food to that list. Say what?
That is what makes Ambar, a Balkan-themed restaurant and bar on Barracks Row, such a courageous venture for Ivan Iricanin (Masa 14 and El Centro partner), who hails from Trstenik, a small town in southern Serbia. He is banking that DC will not only give Balkan cuisine a try, but enjoy it enough to return for more. Enjoy it enough to choose Ambar over other neighborhood favorites like Cava, Matchbox, and Belga Café for date night or after work drinks.
Kudos to Iricanin for taking a big risk, one that appears to be paying off. Judging from the packed crowd on my two visits since opening in January 2013, Ambar has succeeded in elevating Balkan cuisine to hipster status. No easy feat in this competitive food market.
The name “Ambar” refers to the wooden structures that hold corn in the Balkan countryside. To evoke that quaint atmosphere, Iricanin hired a Serbia-based architectural firm, Atelje AL, to design Ambar. The result is a modern, casual, inviting space that fits perfectly with the general atmosphere of Barrack Row.
What is Balkan Food?
What is Balkan food like? It might be best described as a mix of Turkish, Eastern European, and Mediterranean culinary influences, as the region was at the crossroads of many cultures for centuries.
Full disclosure: I lived and worked in Bosnia over a decade ago, and have spent considerable time traveling in Croatia, Serbia, and Montenegro. So I was, understandably, excited to see how Ambar would present my favorite regional dishes that I have a rare occasion to eat these days (there are no Balkan restaurants in DC and only a few farther afield in Maryland and Virginia.)
Ambar creatively reinvents Balkan specialties such as cevapi (kebab), sarma (rice and beef stuffed sour cabbage), and sopska salata (a mixed tomato, pepper, cucumber, onion, and feta salad) for a modern American audience. The authentic flavors are all there, but the presentation is lighter and portions are smaller (tapas style), which render the traditionally “heavy” cuisine much more appealing.
Even the karadjordjeva snicla — rolled veal schnitzel, stuffed with a type of Balkan clotted cream called kajmak, then breaded and deep fried — isn’t coma-inducing. Which says a lot for a dish I dubbed “heart attack on a plate” when it was introduced to me in Bosnia.
Not every dish was a total hit. I found the leek croquettes and panko crusted peppers too Americanized and heavy for my tastes. And there are far too many potatoes served with the cevapi (a dish that doesn’t even come with potatoes in the Balkans).
For more on the food at Ambar, check out Tom Siestma’s review, released in March, in which he gave Ambar two stars.
In the beverage department, I have one strong recommendation — try one of many rakias (fruit brandies) that Iricanin has imported from Serbia. I can testify that these brandies are nothing like the homemade moonshine that reminded me of gasoline during Balkan days. Honestly, I didn’t even realize rakia could taste this good. It’s a bit pricey at an average of $10 a shot, but well worth a try.
Rakia comes in many flavors — plum (sljivovitz), grape (loza), pear (vilijamovka) — though my absolute favorite is an apricot rakia (kajsija) that the bartender insisted I try. My dining mates passed the exotic drinking vessel in which it was delivered around the table so everyone could have a turn to smell the incredibly intense floral apricot aroma.
And if rakia is too strong for you, the wine list is rich with interesting and surprisingly complex Balkan sections from Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia, Bulgaria, and Moldova. The specialty cocktails are just as adventurous, using Balkan liquors to add a new twist to old hat cocktails like the Sarajevo Old Fashioned (sljivovitz, rye whiskey, bitters, and cane syrup) and the Zagreb Rakia Sour (loza, lime, bitters, and egg whites).
Ambar largely succeeds in making the best of Balkan cuisine accessible to the uninitiated. If your usual fare is boring you, venture cross town and give the Balkans a chance to capture your imagination for a night.
- Ambar, 523 8th Street SE.
- Open Monday through Friday 11 am to 11 pm; Saturday and Sunday brunch from 10 am to midnight.
- Tapas from $6 to $16; Cocktails from $9 to $12; wines by the glass from $8 to $12.