During his fall trip to the Balkans, Ivan Iricanin realized he would need to rethink his plan to serve traditional Serbian food on Capitol Hill.
“When I went to Serbia, it was like, ‘This food is good, but it’s like homey.’ You can come and eat once a week, but I want people to come three or four times a week,” the Serbian native told All We Can Eat today at the construction site at 523 Eighth St. SE, where the Masa 14/El Centro D.F. partner will open his modern Serbian restaurant, Ambar.
“We needed to evolve,” Iricanin said about his original concept for Ambar.
Almost by accident during his research trip back home, Iricanin discovered a Belgrade restaurant whose name translates, roughly, into “Little Factory of Tastes.” Its chef, Bojan Bocvarov, divided his menu into “traditional” and “imagination” sections, the latter of which put modern twists on classic Serbian dishes and flavors. The thing that stood out for Iricanin was that Bocvarov’s multi-course tasting menu didn’t weigh him down, like so much traditional Serbian food does.
“We were still like feeling light,” Iricanin remembered about the meal. “It was authentic flavors with a different presentation and with their personal touch.”
And just like that, Ambar had found its chef.
While Iricanin still needs to secure work visas, the Ambar owner was confident enough to announce Bocvarov, 33, as his opening-day chef. Joining Bocvarov are two fellow Serbs: pastry chef Danilo Bucan, 26, and sous-chef Ivan Zivkovic, 28. Iricanin hopes his imported kitchen team will officially go public in mid-January when Ambar is expected to open.
Richard Sandoval and Kaz Okochi, Iricanin’s partners in Masa 14 and El Centro (Sandoval is also a partner in Ambar), have been working with the Serbian chefs to tweak their dishes for the American palate. A lot of the tweaking has to do with adding bolder flavors, Iricanin noted. Bocvarov already has put together a slick booklet of revamped recipes, complete with photos.
“We’re going to mix these two things together — fine dining and traditional food to make some compromise,” said Bocvarov, whose resume includes a stint at the restaurant inside Claridge’s in London as well as a term as corporate chef for the restaurant chain owned by Serbian tennis star, Novak Djokovic.
The Serbian chef then walked me through a number of his recipes to explain how the Ambar version will differ from the traditional dish. Bocvarov’s take “rolovana prasetina,” for instance, will not be thin slices of the cooked and tightly rolled pork, simply served with potatoes and gravy. His version will feature a small salad of ingredients — arugula, watercress, caramelized apples, apricot jam and cracklings, with a light horseradish dressing — sandwiched between slices of the rolled pork. It will be plated with a streak or two of wasabi mayonnaise.
“We are not making this restaurant just for Serbians,” Iricanin said. “We’re going to be more for everybody. We want Serbians to recognize the flavors and be proud of it, but [we want] Americans to come in and say, ‘This is something different!’ ”
At the same time, Iricanin added, Ambar will have daily specials of traditional Serbian food. “Grandma’s recipes,” he called them. “You’re going to have those options, too.”