A native of Trstenik, a small town in southern Serbia, Iricanin plans to give locals a rare taste of his home country. Washingtonians have not been afforded many opportunities to dip into Balkan cuisine: Adams Morgan played host to the short-lived Slaviya, while Alexandria is home to both Euro Foods and the Cosmopolitan Grill, the latter of which is owned by Amela and Ivica “Ivan” Svalina, a pair of expats from Bosnia and Herzegovina.
So how does Serbian food differ, if at all, from Bosnian cuisine?
Charissa Benjamin, regional PR director for Kimpton Hotels, is married to Serbian native Vladan Stankovic, and she mentions the same pork divide between Bosnians and Serbs. As you might suspect, it boils down to religion: Serbia is majority Christian (Serbian Orthodox), while the main religion in Bosnia and Herzegovina is Islam.
Other than protein preferences, the two areas share many of the same dishes, says Iricanin. You’ll find cevapcici, pljeskavica, punjena paprika, sarma and many other dishes throughout the Balkans, but you may find variations, depending on the region. For instance, Iricanin says he makes cevapcici with beef and pork, rather than the all-beef version favored by Bosnians.
Because Iricanin is not a trained cook, he has turned to 70-year-old Milka Zukic, once the personal chef to Yugoslav presidents Marshal Josip Broz Tito and Slobodan Milosevic , to help develop recipes and maintain a sense of authenticity. She will no doubt work with the chef that Iricanin finally hires to run the kitchen at Ambar. The owner says he will be interviewing candidates during his Balkans trip.
Aside from the classic Balkan spreads and dishes, such as those listed above, Ambar will bake its own breads. “That’s a big part of our culture,” Iricanin says about bread. Ambar plans to import Balkan wines as well as a line of rakija brandies, which are fermented from fruits and include the Serbian national drink, slivovitz, a plum brandy.
So how will Iricanin package his Balkan offerings in the (mostly) conservative Barracks Row dining scene? That’s something Iricanin hasn’t fully worked out. His trip should go a long way toward answering the question. He will be traveling with Richard Sandoval and Kaz Okochi, his Masa 14/El Centro partners, to the Balkans and working with them on how to maintain the flavors of the region while upgrading the presentations for American diners. (Sandoval, incidentally, is a partner in Ambar.)
“It’s kind of comfort food,” Iricanin says about his native cuisine. “I think people will like it.”