Tom Sietsema: Ambar on Capitol Hill
By Tom Sietsema,
Ivan Iricanin faced many hurdles on the path to opening a Balkan restaurant on Capitol Hill that would deliver what he calls “the whole package”: service, setting and the Serbian flavors of his youth.
Iricanin, a partner in Masa 14 and El Centro D.F. in Logan Circle, wondered where he would find potatoes, chicken and meat of the same quality as back home, where a lot of families still grow or raise their own provisions. He worried that he wouldn’t be able to stock as many of the fruit brandies, called rakia, as typically fill a Serbian watering hole. At one point during a summer dine-around in Belgrade, Iricanin’s business associate in the project, chef-restaurateur Richard Sandoval, even suggested they pull the plug on Ambar. Sandoval thought the food was too heavy and repetitious.
Iricanin, who most of all sought a good chef, never lost faith. Driving him was a desire to get consumers to think differently about his homeland, for too long a newsmaker for all the wrong reasons — “wars, bad leaders,” says the entrepreneur. “I wanted to showcase something we are proud of.”
Ambar, which opened in the former Jordan 8 in January, is his two-story tribute to the former Yugoslavia and a style of cooking influenced by Greece, Turkey, Austria and Hungary. Anyone who has spent time in Serbia will recognize the many fine points, from the menu’s beef-and-pork kebabs (cevapi) to some of the servers’ accents to the slats of wood that warm up the walls and reinforce the restaurant’s name: Ambar refers to the sheds, used to store corn, found near homes throughout Serbia.
Aiding the owner’s cause are a trio of Serbian chefs, including Bojan Bocvarov. Ambar’s top toque, 33, was recruited from a restaurant in Belgrade that loosely translates into English as “Little Factory of Tastes” and offers both traditional and modern dishes.
America’s affection for grazing is acknowledged on the menu, for the most part a collection of tapas-size plates meant to encourage exploration. Perhaps the most genuine introduction is the Balkan salad, which sounds basic until the bounty shows up. Tomatoes, cucumbers and onions, plus chunks of gold bell peppers, are splashed with red wine vinaigrette and piled in a bowl where the garden is dusted with aged cow’s milk cheese from Bulgaria. The cool, the crunch and the color call to the senses in a way few house salads do.
A bread basket goes for $6 and introduces diners to several recurring accents in the Serbian repertoire. The corn bread and fried sourdough (greasy but good) come with satisfying dips: kaymak (think clotted cream), ajvar (roasted red peppers and garlic) and crumbled cheese made racy with chili flakes. Another pleasing entry point is a warm cheese pastry that gushes with liquid gold on contact with the teeth. The blond packet rests on a puddle of cucumber-laced yogurt.
One of the few drags among the starters are the leek fritters, all crunch and wan flavor.
Pickled cabbage packed with ground meat picks up some smoke from minced bacon in the filling. The rib-sticker, served with a drift of yogurt, proves a flashback to my Christmas spent in Sarajevo three winters ago. So does Ambar’s veal stew, a delicate gathering of five or so bites of meat and carrots in a light wash of kaymak. Served in a small skillet, the meat gets a boost from careful browning.
The chef’s tender squid puts me in more of a California state of mind, but who cares? I relish the punch of olives and capers, and the bright hit of dried lime, mounted on top of the grilled seafood, which is perched on garlicky Swiss chard mixed with soft diced potatoes: New Age Balkan.
This is for the most part subtle food, free of fireworks. Because the dishes don’t hide behind a lot of spices or sauces, the quality of ingredients must be prime. Only fresh beef and pork go into the kebabs, for instance, which emerge from the grill springy and succulent (with an assist from pork belly and club soda, Bocvarov shares). A nest of cheese-sprinkled soft red peppers — Serbs love their red peppers — turns the links into a party.
Slices of chicken, crusted in ground walnuts and almonds, teeter in a stack with shredded apple and wasabi between its layers. The construction is more of a curiosity than a crowd-pleaser.
Iricanin replicates the warmth of his homeland not just in the cooking and hospitality, which runs gracious, but also in the rustic design of Ambar. His best friend from Serbia is the architect who came up with the idea to dress the wall as if for an ambar. The second floor, homey with wallpaper and bookshelves, is almost a mirror of the first, save for the taller tables upstairs. The hitch? Wherever you settle, Ambar is a blast — of noise, alas. One night’s conversation was drowned out by a quirky mix of beer garden music and disco.
You will likely need a guide for the wine list, stacked with labels from countries you probably haven’t drunk from much, including Croatia, Macedonia and Serbia. To the rescue: a manager who suggests a red wine similar to a syrahto bridge a mixed feast of meat and fish. Ambar also offers rakia in almost as many flavors as Baskin-Robbins — there are more than 30 now — and up-to-the-moment cocktails. Skoplje, featuring mezcal and pear rakia, could just as easily be poured at Masa 14, Iricanin’s Latin-Asian destination across town.
Iricanin says he wanted to “play” with desserts. While I can understand a need to stretch, when a restaurant has put so much thought into so much of its operation, it’s a disappointment to conclude a meal with a not-so-Balkan “Balkan-style apple pie” (where’s the fruit flavor?) or Forest Gnocchi. The latter finds chocolate mousse, orange cake pieces, passionfruit espuma and black tea sauce in a bowl, with instructions from the server to blend everything together. The dark goo tastes like incomplete thoughts.
More often than not, however, eating this underrepresented food is a pleasure. The output at Washington’s little factory of tastes is impressive.
★★ Ambar 523 Eighth St. SE. 202-813-3039.ambar restaurant.com. OPEN: Lunch 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday; dinner 5 to 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 5 p.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday; brunch 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. METRO: Eastern Market. PRICES: Appetizers $6 to $8, mid-size main courses $8 to $16. SOUND CHECK: 98 decibels/ Extremely loud.