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.