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Prepping Balkan cuisine for its Capitol Hill debut

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Several days into an August trip to eat his way through the Balkans, Richard Sandoval lost his faith. The Mexican chef, the man with more than 25 restaurants to his name, was close to pulling the plug on his latest project: a Balkan-themed eatery on Capitol Hill that he was planning with Ivan Iricanin, a native Serb who is also a partner in two other Sandoval establishments in the District.

Sandoval’s dark night of the soul came after about four days of sampling Serbian, Bosnian and other cuisines in the former Yugoslavia. Sometime around midnight, he picked up the phone in his Belgrade hotel room and called Kaz Okochi, the D.C. sushi chef and fellow partner in Masa 14 and El Centro D.F., who had joined Sandoval on the trip. “He said, ‘Let’s just stop doing this and bring Masa’ ” to Capitol Hill instead, remembers Okochi.

“I said, ‘This is Ivan’s dream project, and I don’t think anything can convince him not to do it,’ ” Okochi says.

Sandoval understood the implications. But at that time, the veteran restaurateur was struggling with how to create a Western-friendly version of Balkan cuisine. “I just couldn’t put my arms around it,” Sandoval says while sitting with Okochi and Iricanin in Ambar, which opened earlier this month in the former Jordan’s 8 space with a menu that took many months and countless revisions to take shape.

“I told them, ‘I don’t do things for money. If I’m not passionate about it and I can’t understand it, I cannot be part of it, because I’m going to get so frustrated figuring it out.’ And I couldn’t. I said, ‘How are we going to introduce this to diners in Washington, D.C.?’ ”

How they finally settled on an opening-day menu seems as much a New Testament tale as it does a triumph of culinary know-how. Their story features a true believer on a mission to bring Balkan food to Washington, a close colleague who has doubts and three wise men who ultimately pull it off.

The narrative continues shortly after Sandoval hangs up the phone with Okochi, who is advising but isn’t a partner in the project. The Mexican chef then dials up Iricanin and suggests they take another stab at creating a menu for Ambar. As in right now, early in the August morning in Belgrade. So the men hash it out, opting for smaller plates and a wider gastronomic vision that encompasses Greek, Turkish and other cuisines along the Mediterranean. Satisfied, the two men try to shake off their jet lag for some well-deserved sleep.

The next morning, Iricanin awakes with a change of heart. “I was, like, ‘Okay, this all makes sense and maybe somebody will like it, but this is not my cuisine. This is not Serbian food.’ ”

The anecdote underscores the central conflict that Sandoval and Iricanin faced as they built a menu: Sandoval considers Balkan cooking “very, very heavy,” with little of the spice and complexity found in Mexican cooking. In the Balkans, Sandoval encountered large slabs of unadorned grilled proteins, thick cheese pies, hearty stews and other rich dishes, many of them served with a milk-fat-laden, slightly fermented condiment known as kajmak. After his tasting travels, Sandoval says, “I felt like I was going to start sweating kajmak.” He couldn’t imagine anyone eating that food more than twice a year, a restaurateur’s worst nightmare.

Iricanin, by contrast, ate that food every day of his life before leaving Serbia for good in 2005 and eventually working for Sandoval to open Zengo in Chinatown. Iricanin thought nothing of devouring cheese pies for breakfast; miniature kebabs, known as cevapcici, stuffed into lepinja bread for lunch; or a 10-ounce hunk of pork tenderloin for a multi-course dinner. He swears that Serbs are not obese.

But Iricanin, 35, is also a restaurateur who understands that all cuisines undergo an indoctrination process when entering the United States. It’s a rite of passage: Any food that wants to take up residence in America must conform, in some ways, to the predominating tastes of its adopted country. That is the very reason Iricanin wanted Sandoval and Okochi to accompany him to the Balkans; both of them, after all, had already suffered the scars of acclimation with their Mexican and Japanese restaurants.

Sandoval uses La Sandia, his Mexican restaurant in Tysons Corner, as an example. “The one I started was more like Maya [in New York], a little more modern, and people just didn’t get it. When they’re shopping, I think people go to a restaurant and want to see familiar things. And if they don’t see familiar things, they’re going to go to a different” place.

The problem with introducing Balkan cuisine to the States is that there are few precedents here to serve as a guide, especially if your goal is to target the designer-cocktail crowd on Capitol Hill rather than a community of Balkan expats in suburbia. The partners had hoped that, during their trip, they would find some enterprising Balkan chefs who were already putting modern spins on the traditional cuisine. Mostly, though, they encountered the same delicious, if plodding, plates everywhere they went.

Until the last day of the trip for Sandoval, who stayed longer in the Balkans than Iricanin.

That’s when Sandoval discovered a Belgrade restaurant whose name roughly translates to Little Factory of Tastes. Chef Bojan Bocvarov was already pushing his native cuisine in new directions, taking modern cooking and plating techniques and using them to re-imagine Serbian ingredients and dishes. Sandoval was impressed enough to call Iricanin — right in the middle of his meal — and tell him to return immediately to Serbia to try Bocvarov’s cooking.

Several months later, in December, Iricanin announced Bocvarov and Danilo Bucan, the pastry chef from Little Factory, as his creative team in the kitchen at Ambar. The chefs are Serbs. They are well trained in modern techniques. They weren’t, however, the magic solution to the problem of translating Balkan food for the American palate.

There were cultural divides yet to bridge, such as Serbians’ inclination to keep sweet and savory flavors separate. “I know all my friends, they don’t eat sweet and savory in one bite,” Iricanin says. “Sweet is sweet, savory is savory.”

But right there on Ambar’s opening menu is a venison carpaccio paired with a parsley- and-pear pesto and — look away! — cranberry chutney. It’s riff on a Serbian beef carpaccio, which would be sliced thin, drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with cracked black pepper. Period. Interestingly, Bocvarov’s original conception of the venison carpaccio (the switcheroo a nod to the wild-meat tradition in Serbia) was more deconstructed, with the pesto streaked across the plate and the chutney on the side.

Sandoval and Okochi thought the plating was too dated and complicated. “They’re doing a lot of what we saw maybe 10, 15 years ago, when French cuisine had little portions and everything was separate,” Sandoval says of Bocvarov’s deconstruction. “I think both of us talked about it and said we couldn’t get all the flavors” in one bite.

This layering of flavors in a single dish became a recurring theme for Sandoval and Okochi. The preferred style of eating in Serbia, Iricanin says, is to order a main dish and a seasonal side “salad,” such as shopska (tomato, cucumber, bell pepper, onion, sunflower oil, vinegar, aged and salty Bulgarian cheese) or belolucana-paprika (garlic, red bell pepper, parsley, sunflower oil, vinegar). The salads often serve as a counterbalance to the rich, meaty dishes, providing a blast of acidity or a wave of pungency. Sandoval and Okochi agreed that Washingtonians wouldn’t want to build layers of flavor on their own.

So they encouraged Bocvarov to, essentially, incorporate the salads into his dishes. For example, the pljeskavica, or Balkan burger, is no longer a massive round of ground pork and beef, surrounded by raw sliced onions and french fries. At Ambar, it’s a modest, open-face sandwich with the chef’s take on urnebes (a spread with cheese, garlic and the roasted eggplant-and-red-pepper jam known as ajvar) and tarator (think: tzatziki) salads on the top and bottom of the patty.

Similarly, Bocvarov’s cevapcici is not a row of sawed-off logs on a plate, with a side of raw onion and salad, but a single-serving cast-iron pan of kebabs over a simplified version of belolucana-paprika salad, topped with aged Bulgarian cheese.

Other dishes smack of Western culinary influences, too — or even the New American model of incorporating international flavors. It might be the apple-wasabi slaw that accompanies the nut-encrusted chicken known as manastirska piletina (Monastery Chicken), or it might be a beef stroganoff stew transformed into a grilled beef tenderloin served with a Serbian-style stroganoff sauce with pickled cucumbers. You can’t have a Capitol Hill restaurant, after all, without steak.

Overall, Iricanin says he’s satisfied with the final menu; he feels as if he could invite his friends and relatives from Serbia, and they would recognize the flavors, if not always the presentations. Of course, it will be the American diners who may force more changes to the Ambar menu in the coming months, depending on their reactions and criticisms.

Or maybe not.

“When I opened Maya, there was already expectations,” Sandoval notes about his New York restaurant and the locals who had preconceived notions about Mexican food. But Iricanin is “the first one to do [Balkan food], so this will be the benchmark, I think, when other people open one. He may not have to Americanize as much.”

NOTE: A previous version of this article incorrectly implied that a true believer, a doubter and three wise men are subjects from the Old Testament. They are part of the New Testament.

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