Ambar, the District's first Balkan restaurant, opened this week. Unfamiliar with the cuisine of Serbia, Croatia, Macedonia and the other nations that comprise the region? Here's what we suggest you order on your first visit:
Drink: Ambar's cocktail menu may seem strange to Americans: 8 of the 11 drinks feature rakia, a brandy-like liqueur made from fermented fruit. It's not a common taste in Washington. It can be dark and sticky, as in the Sarajevo cocktail, with slivovitz plum brandy, rye whiskey and viscous cane syrup. But the lighter rakias are the gateway: Try the Trycycle 007, which is basically a martini with quince rakia in place of gin. The liqueur is smooth, with a floral scent and a hint of ripe fruit, which is balanced by vermouth and bitters. It's the best aperitif in the house.
Dish: While many of the dishes at Ambar have been adjusted for American tastes, the sarma, or stuffed sour cabbage, is one of the few 100 percent authentic items on the menu. In our preview of the restaurant, owner Ivan Iricanin said that it was a family recipe: "When I eat it, I’m home.” It's more sour and salty than its Greek cousin -- dolma, the stuffed grape leaves -- with a hint of bay leaf. Sarma are filled with beef and pork, and topped with a generous dollop of sour cream.
Dessert: The forest gnocchi doesn't incorporate traditional Balkan flavors at all -- pastry chef Danilo Bucan says that the inventive dish comes straight from his imagination -- but it is a standout nonetheless. Balls of "gnocchi" formed from chocolate mousse, bitter orange cake, orange gelee and tarragon cream lay atop a layer of salted ground chocolate in a heavy stone bowl. When the dish is presented, the server pours a passion fruit espuma with black tea sauce around the globules, and encourages diners to mix multiple gnocchi together to ensure a different and interesting flavor pairing in every bite.