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.