Baba, the name of a cozy basement bar in Clarendon, means “grandmother” in Serbian. And this grandma wants to get you tipsy.
A big draw for this new restaurant underneath its sibling, Ambar, is the drink menu. You’ll find refined cocktails made from rakia or slivovitz, two European fruit brandies alongside pisco, mezcal and whiskey drinks. Some cocktails, such as the maroon-colored B&B, made with rum, beet and lime juices and maraschino liqueur, are rooted in Eastern European flavors. Others, such as the cachaca-honey-lime Brazilian Smash, are tropical enough for a tiki bar. They turn out a lovely gin and tonic with edible flowers.
It’s all a departure from the Ambar team, who are branching out beyond the Balkans. You’ll find hints of French, American and Asian flavors on the menu, some given a Serbian twist, some left as is.
“It’s not traditional, for sure,” said owner Ivan Iricanin. “It’s like Balkan-inspired small plates. I gave [chef Bojan Bocvarov] a little more freedom.”
One thing the bar doesn’t have in common with many old-world grandmothers is its portions. “Eat!” your grandma might tell you as she pushes food onto your plate. But Baba’s small plates are small — maybe fine when you’re sharing with just one other person, but in a big, hungry group, you’ll order multiple waves of food and get the teeniest bite of each. The ham croquettes could be the stuff of dreams, but they’re each the size of an olive.
For some bigger bites, try one of the open-face sandwiches, each built upon dense European black bread: tartares of steak and salmon; a seafood take on the classic Russian Salad Olivier; and roasted pumpkin with pureed beans and parsnip, the best of the bunch. Baba’s take on mozzarella sticks are another hearty pick — snackable fried slices of smoked Gouda, served with a tart cranberry sauce instead of marinara.
During the day, Baba operates at a slower tempo than at night. Open at 8 every morning for the remote-worker crowd, there are WiFi, comfy seats and La Colombe coffee. Homestyle breakfasts get an upgrade: With the addition of espresso mascarpone and almond butter, oatmeal dresses up as tiramisu. Eggs and grain bowls fill out the rest of the daytime menu, along with a “panino” or two (in quotation marks because the rotisserie lamb-and-pickle sandwich was merely toasted, having never touched the grooves of a panini press).
Baba is at its best for after-dinner drinks and snacks, or happy hour. The atmosphere is lounge-y, and a DJ spins Tuesdays through Saturdays at 10 p.m., when the house lights go down and the black lights go up (they might make your drink glow bright blue). Otherwise, it feels like an Apartment Therapy-worthy living room: black-and-white tiled floors, whitewashed wood walls, a gallery wall of kitschy-cool retro paintings opposite a faux fireplace. The attention to detail is apparent everywhere. The vintage glassware is delicate and beautiful. The mismatched plates are chic. One of my drinks arrived with an intricate pattern carved into the rind of its lime garnish.
Even if Baba isn’t going to stuff you, she will take care of you. Iricanin’s grandmother “had a lot of personality,” but the restaurant is not entirely based on her.
“My grandmother was not a partyer, definitely,” he said. “She was running the house.”
2901 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. www.baba.bar . 703-312-7978. Plates, $6 to $13. Tom Sietsema is on assignment.