Friday, September 11, 2020

Ambar

"Where southeastern Europe meets Southeast DC," Ambar is a Serbian-owned restaurant along the bustling Barracks Row that features Balkan inspired dishes emphasizing meats and cheeses. The name refers to a Balkan building used to dry maize. With a desire to introduce DC to cutting edge Balkan cuisine, proprietor Ivan Iricanin has created a dining space that will delight and indulge the senses. Primarily featuring "small plates" Ambar will also offer wines and spirits from the Balkans not often experienced by the American diner. Closest Metro is Eastern Market.

Photo: Jeff Elkins
Ambar's aim is to put together the finest products of the New World and Old world for your dining pleasure. Perennially on the edge of great empires the Balkans owes much of its food culture to its history, geography,and climate. The design gives a warm cabin-like vibe.  "Downstairs, a banquette lines the long, narrow dining room. It's attached to a wall lined with light, rustic wood meant to suggest the corn storage barns of the restaurant's namesake that dot the Serbian countryside. Upstairs, a copper-topped bar faces high-top tables leading back to a 40-person rooftop patio. At the front of this second level, a small raised area hosts a few tables with comfy upholstered chairs. The second floor has been pushed back from the front wall to create a two-level entrance way so that there is a sense of greater flow between the two stories," says Branimir Lukic, the Serbian architect hired by Iricanin.


grappa sour
mango lemonade
When drinking at Ambar, the thing to try is rakia, a Serbian brandy often made from fruit like plum or apricot, as well as nuts. The restaurant will offer more than 20 varieties, which guests can order straight or as a base in riffs on classic cocktails. Iricanin will also stock two popular Balkan lagers: Lav (which means lion) and Jelen (which means deer).

January 2013: Keith and I were invited to an opening reception at Ambar and were able to sample a few cocktails and nibbles.  Keith opted for the strong grappa sour made with grappa rakia, bitters, lime, and egg whites.  He thought it had an interesting flavor.  I tried the lighter mango lemonade made with vodka, mango puree, simple syrup, and lemon juice.  It was very refreshing and right up my alley.  The vodka may not be as strong as the rakia, but given that I am a light weight, the drink was still plenty strong enough for me.

We then nibbled on a few passed items that are smaller than the traditional menu items, but at least gave us a glimpse of the Balkan cuisine. (See the picture collage below.) First, a white veal soup with sour cream and fresh chives.  Keith found the flavors to have depth and overall it was a nice comforting soup.  Second, a bite of Balkan salad with tomato, peppers, cucumber, onions, and aged cheese. This was very healthy and refreshing.  Next, a crowd favorite, the beet & goat cheese napoleon with pork cracklins, walnuts, and chives.  It was served in a little spoon for our tasting, but I imagine would come in a much nicer and larger presentation regularly.  The blend of the beets and goat cheese together into a mousse was very delicate and gave a sensuous bite. The grilled bacon-wrapped prunes were stuffed with goat cheese and an almond and covered in a thick blueberry balsamic reduction.  This little bite was sweet and chewy with minimal bacon flavor.  Next was Keith's ultimate favorite bite of the night - Balkan kebab - a beef and pork mixture with aged cheese and a roasted pepper sauce.  The grilled flavor really came through in the meat and he could easily popped a dozen of these.  Lastly, I ate the almond & walnut-crusted chicken served with apple-wasabi slaw.  The little nugget was alright, and the wasabi slaw a little mild but overall a nice taste.


All of the items we sampled were very pleasing and intrigued me enough to truly want more.  The upstairs area is warm and inviting and a perfect spot for private events. The open-air roof bar in the back is very nice and I can see many nights packed during the warmer months.  A great alternative to nearby Cava.  I am really looking forward to coming back for a full Balkan meal at Ambar soon and excited to see the progression of this new restaurant in my neighborhood. 

June 2013: It has been nearly six months since Ambar first opened, and we returned to check out their Brunch menu.  Being a busy Sunday, all the tables were book with reservations, but we were able to sit at the bar.  Offering an all-you-can eat option with bottomless mimosas or Bloody Mary's for $35, we opted for the a la carte menu instead. I did try the Ambar Mimosa made with house champagne, peach puree and blood orange.  It was a slightly sweeter version to the traditional and I liked it very much.


We decided to share an order of the roasted mushroom crepes to start.  Served on top of a red pepper emulsion, the savory crepes were oozing with creamy bechamel and gouda.  The flavors were very comforting, yet a bit heavy for this warm summer morning. Don't get me wrong - I would easily order these again and devour the whole plate by myself, as they were truly delicious.
  

Then we each ordered a sandwich.  I chose the vegetarian tikvice - a gouda & zucchini patty with red pepper spread and roasted sunflower seeds, served with a mixed green salad.  The sandwich was on the smaller side, which I didn't mind so much since we had the crepes to start.  I would have liked my patty to be a bit hotter, but the flavor was good and having a vegetarian option always gets points in my book. 


Keith tried the Balkan Burger (pljeskavica) - a beef and pork patty with cucumber yogurt, roasted pepper spread, aged cheese, and cabbage slaw served with homemade potatoes.  His burger was pretty tasty too and went perfectly with the Fat Tire beer he drank.  I am happy to see Ambar thriving well along the competing Barracks Row neighborhood. The brunch items left us intrigued to return for dinner.

September 2019: Michelin Guide named this restaurant to its list of Bib Gourmand in DC - those restaurants that offer "excellent food at a reasonable price."

September 2020: We've returned to Ambar many times over the years, but recently went for their Ultimate Balkan Experience - this all you can eat dinner option is only $35 per person, plus an additional $20 for unlimited drinks. We sat outside on the patio to enjoy our two-hour experience.


First, I ordered the house rosé and Keith ordered the sauvignon blanc.  These were brought out right away (generous pours, too) along with a mezze platter including various spreads, charcuterie, and bread.  The Kajmak (cow's milk clotted cream) paired great with the spicy pork salami. My favorite spreads were the Urnebes (cow cheese, ajvar, chili flakes), Ajvar (roasted pepper, eggplant, garlic), and Beets Tzatziki.

We then shared so many plates that you can pick from a large menu - but I'll simply list below my favorites:


Baked Cheese Pie served with cucumber yogurt.


Mushroom Pilaf made with root veggies and plenty of cremini mushrooms.


Chicken Skewers were dark meat served with kajmak sauce and pickled onion.


We also got a few vegetables such as the Brussels Sprouts served with lemon garlic yogurt and crispy bacon (not pictured) and Cauliflower with parsley, tahini, and pesto. 


Sarma (Pork Belly Stuffed Cabbage) - oven baked for 8 hours with root vegetables, rice, and smoked peppers.  This had a vinegery bite and was different than Polish stuffed cabbage that I am used to. 


Grilled Shrimp served with corn puree was a favorite that we ordered a second serving of!

Plus Keith ordered a few meat dishes he liked such as the Beef Short Rib Goulash served with pasta, and the Pork Neck in a miso-mustard tarragon sauce served with potato gratin topped with a peanut-bacon crumble (wow!), and Cevapi (house beef sausages) served with paprika and pickled onion.


Our wine glasses were constantly filled, and if all the savory food was not enough, we were treated to cinnamon donuts on the house that Keith paired with an Old Fashioned.  We had a WONDERFUL meal and ultimate experience at Ambar for such a great deal!

Total Rating: 4.33
Food: 4.5, Price: 4, Service: 4, Ambience: 4, Accessibility: 5
What Micky Eats...
Ambar on Urbanspoon

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