Ambar, the new Balkans-cuisine restaurant from Ivan Iricanin, values authenticity — up to a point. Food from the region including Serbia, Macedonia, Croatia, Albania and other countries on the peninsula needed a few adjustments to appeal to local taste buds, because traditional Balkan meals are quite heavy. “You start with meat, there’s meat in the middle, and meat at the end,” Iricanin said. “We had to tweak it for American tastes.”
When the Barracks Row restaurant opens Jan. 14, meat won’t be the only thing on the menu. Diners will be able to sample small plates ($5-$16) that draw on ingredients such as roasted pumpkin, grilled prunes and wild mushrooms, as well as venison carpaccio, grilled duck and sirloin. The modern interpretation of Balkan cuisine is “80 percent tradition, 20 percent imagination,” Iricanin said.
Balkan food is akin to Mediterranean food, so you’ll see some familiar dishes: Mezze plates of charcuterie, grilled cheeses, and calamari. But the region’s other culinary influences make themselves known on the menu too, in a beef tenderloin with stroganoff sauce, or kebabs with red peppers and cheese.
Iricanin, who is a partner with Richard Sandoval in Masa 14 and El Centro D.F., had longed for a restaurant with the cuisine of his homeland, Serbia. He spent 10 days there on a tasting trip to develop the menu, returning with ideas from area restaurants, his family’s home cooking, and even a Serbian monastery.
Ambar will be among a small number of places in the U.S. to carry rakia, the national drink of many countries in the Balkans. Made from fermented fruit and served in flights, Ambar will carry 30 flavors, from juniper to quince. General manager Uros Smiljanic, also from Serbia, said the bar will carry 35 wines from the region and four beers. A wine glossary on the menu explains the differences between regional wine varieties such as Plavac Mali (“Tobacco and licorice, with intense flavors of ripe red berries”) and Prokupac (“Full-bodied intense ruby red, hint of strawberry and cherry”). Cocktails, all $10, are flavored with apricots, pears and plums, and are rakia takes on classic cocktails, named after Balkan cities.
There’s a bar atmosphere on the restaurant’s second floor, which has a heated outdoor patio, while the first floor is a dining area with a view of the pastry chef, Danilo Bucan, as he creates the 25 desserts on the menu. Serbian architect Branimir Lukic connects the separate spaces with design elements culled from the Serbian countryside, like rustic shelves, and handmade glass lighting fixtures. A poster near the bar pays tribute to famous Serbian Nikola Tesla. The restaurant’s name, said Lukic, comes from the structure that people in the Balkans use to dry their corn.
One of the first things a visitor will see is a board of daily specials that boasts “Grandma’s recipes.” They are indeed grandma’s recipes, Iricanin said, especially the sarma, a stuffed sour cabbage. “When I eat it, I’m home,” he said.
Ambar, 523 8th St. SE. Opening for dinner Jan. 14, with lunch and brunch service beginning Feb. 7. 202-813-3039. www.ambarrestaurant.com.