The following review appears in The Washington Post’s 2017 Fall Dining Guide.
Beef kebab or lamb kebab? “Let me be honest,” says my server. “This is the Balkan Experience. Get them both.” He’s referring not just to the cuisine being served, but the deal being offered, at one of the most welcoming restaurants around: $35 buys unlimited small plates. Cover your table with stuffed cabbage, pork sausage, rainbow trout — but not the flatbreads, gummy of late. The original Ambar sits on Capitol Hill. My preference is for the Arlington spinoff, distinguished with overhead planters that lend the dining room the feel of a garden and old photos of Belgrade that bring the past to Clarendon. One of the few drawbacks remains the clamor. At full tilt, Ambar is the sound equivalent of a snowblower. The cooking deserves softer.
2 1/2 stars
Ambar: 2901 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. 703-875-9663. ambarrestaurant.com.
Prices: Small plates $6-$13.
Sound check: 90 decibels / Extremely loud
This review appeared in The Washington Post’s 2017 Spring Dining Guide as No. 5 on a list of the year’s 10 best new restaurants.
Alone, the Balkan food makes me a cheerleader for Ambar, the Arlington spinoff of the Washington original. Jewish penicillin has a rival in veal soup, its golden broth rich with shreds of meat, sweet carrots and a drift of creme fraiche. And the tangy stuffed sour cabbage would be compelling even if the waiter didn’t share the story of how his grandmother made the dish for the whole neighborhood back in Serbia. But Ambar nails other fine points, too. The dining room, dressed with blowups of vintage photographs from Belgrade and sea-green banquettes, is a looker, and the service couldn’t be more accommodating. Waiters tell you the best way to order is to ask for the $35 “Balkan Experience,” unlimited small plates that let you explore the range of the menu. Really, my only problem here is a sound check that cancels out conversation. Ambar, are you listening?
This review was originally published Nov. 16, 2016.
Ambar review: Food and service worth shouting about. And you’ll have to.
Before I even crack the menu at Ambar, the Arlington spinoff of the same-named Balkan restaurant on Capitol Hill, I turn into a cheerleader for the place.
The seduction begins at the door, when I show up a few minutes ahead of the rest of my party. Instead of being told to wait in the bar until everyone is present, a host asks, “Would you like to sit down now?” It’s such a rare invitation, I figure I’ve misheard her. On the contrary, she shows me to my table in an airy but crowded dining room (formerly Boulevard WoodGrill) and tells me not to worry if my party is late.
Friends show up a few minutes later, wondering if their car will be safe from towing in a nearby lot. Their fears are alleviated when a manager slips outside to put a business card on the vehicle, marking it untouchable. Score another point for hospitality!
Next, a waiter arrives to go over the menu. His smile signals great enthusiasm for the food, but we can hear only a third of what he’s saying. The roar of the crowd and an overhead speaker make conversation difficult. Could someone please turn down the music, we ask? The waiter nods his head and excuses himself to deliver the request to a manager who, to his credit and our relief, lowers the volume. “Is that better?” the waiter asks when he returns.
See what I mean? Ambar endears you to it without the assistance of so much as a crumb of food. But then the server starts introducing the dishes, with influences from Greece, Turkey, Austria and Hungary, and you wonder why Balkan food doesn’t have better representation in this country. Because for sheer comfort, veal soup rivals Jewish penicillin with its golden broth rich with shreds of meat, sweet carrots and a steaming surface dappled with creme fraiche. Also because tangy stuffed sour cabbage comes with a story by a Serbian waiter, who shares that his grandmother used to make the dish for the whole neighborhood.
We want to know how his employer’s version compares. “Ninety-nine percent,” he replied, suggesting that it was as close to home cooking as a restaurant could get without his grandmother hovering over the stove. The soft cabbage leaves contain a soothing combination of rice and pork belly. Even the introductory bread — warm pita, puffed up like flying saucers — is impressive when the spread is cow’s milk cheese mixed with ajvar, the condiment of red peppers, eggplant and garlic that’s as common there as ketchup here.
The new Ambar shares some characteristics with the venue in Washington, but they are far from mirror images. Their common bonds include cevapi (juicy beef-and-veal kebabs) and stellar service. To that end, founder Ivan Iricanin brought Dejan Pilovic and Jovan Prvulovic over from Serbia to serve as executive chef and general manager, respectively. Pilovic previously cooked at the Ambar overseas, opened last year; Prvulovic is responsible for training and operations at all of Iricanin’s eateries. (There are six more in Serbia, including a fast-casual brand similar to Chipotle.)
Diners have Nya Gill to thank for the cosmopolitan look of the place. She’s the owner’s wife and the recent recipient of a master’s degree in interior architecture and design from George Washington University. Her debut restaurant opens with a raised bar whose ceiling draws attention with blowups of vintage postcards and photographs from Belgrade, images that also run along the sea-green banquettes in the dining room. Live plants hang from the ceiling: a touch of nature, inside. In the back is an open kitchen, framed in ceramic white tiles and outfitted with a charcoal grill. The heat source, another detail distinguishing new from old, lends smokiness to the fine house-made sausages and a lunchtime hit: sliced grilled shrimp garnished with fried pancetta and served with tartar sauce on a ruffle of lettuce and sliced pita.
Back to the menu. A waiter is quick to point out that the best approach is to forgo ordering a la carte and subscribe to the $35 “Balkan Experience,” or unlimited small plates that allow you to pick from the entire menu. The owner thinks the deal encourages exploration and may account for the high number of boar burgers that leave the kitchen. Even if you are moderately hungry, the open-ended strategy makes the most sense.
Besides, what don’t you want to try? The spreads are great conversation starters. The chef’s tasting, presented on a slate slab, is three scoops in pink (roasted beet tzatziki), orange (ajvar with aged cow cheese and chilies) and gray (shredded lamb bound with cream cheese and finished with horseradish dressing). The dips are eaten with corn bread and greasy-but-delicious fried sourdough.
Iricanin buys quality meat from Amish farmers in Pennsylvania. Ambar’s pork, chicken and lamb don’t need much more than some time on the rotisserie, and some tangy potatoes and horseradish, to impress me. The potatoes, cooked in vegetable stock and red with paprika, are especially easy to make disappear.
Regardless of the time of day, Ambar is priced to make regulars of its neighbors, with lunch deals that amount to feasts. The primer for Balkan fare is the “traditional” platter for $19. The noontime fun starts with a bowl of the aforementioned veal soup and continues with a board arranged with yogurt-striped stuffed cabbage; a salad colorful with chopped peppers and Bulgarian feta cheese; a trio of springy cevapi on a puddle of kaymak, or clotted cream; plus a wedge of cheese pie, its many layers crisp with phyllo. Those who prefer surf at lunch can graze on the seafood platter for a dollar more. The extravaganza brings together an earthy mushroom puree and a board outfitted with crisp catfish on a dollop of bright tartar sauce; moist trout; a little heap of tender mussels flavored with rakia (fruit brandy), garlic and lemon; and a salad that shows the care the kitchen takes with all its food. The last isn’t just greens, but also shaved zucchini, asparagus and peas.
Unless you are from Macedonia, say, or Bulgaria or Croatia, there are wines that may be unfamiliar to you. Trust your server to point you to something you’ll enjoy, maybe a crisp Stobi rosé, hinting of strawberries, from Macedonia.
This rib-sticking food rarely leaves me with space for dessert. Should you splurge, anything involving fruit and swaddled in phyllo is your best bet.
Ambar tests my loyalty in only one way: Evenings in particular, it’s as loud as a snowblower. The restaurant caters to a diverse mix of clients, just as the owner intended; my hunch is, most people don’t want to suspend conversation for the duration of a meal because they can barely hear their own thoughts, let alone the voices of others. The addition of drapes might take away from the people-watching, but I can imagine soundproofing for the pressed-tin ceiling.
Surely the same folks who dispense so much goodwill and satisfying food can solve a problem like disquiet. Until the issue is resolved, I’ll be bringing earplugs along with my appetite.