“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.