How would you define Balkan cuisine? This is the question I asked of Uros Smiljanic, the General Manager at the new Ambar Restaurant on Capitol Hill. Uros replied quickly with two words: "soul food", which caught me by surprise. Not the American soul food we think of, but instead he described it as a lot of slow cooking with an abundance of family influence. In fact, each dish that Uros and Chef and Bojan Bocvarov brought out was described as "grandma's recipe" or "my mother's recipe". They not only showed a great amount of excitement around sharing their food with us, but there was also so much pride as they brought us into their world and exposed us to all of the flavors from their native cuisine. I went into the experience at Ambar feeling ignorant as I was not sure exactly what Balkan food actually entailed, and I left a big fan, totally impressed with the experience, and excited to go back. Ambar is located on 8th Street SE in a two level space with beautiful decor. The interior has a lot of natural wood, muted colors, bookshelves, and a geometric wallpaper that adds a touch of sophistication. The restaurant was opened by Serbian Ivan Iricanin in partnership with Richard Sandoval who also owns El Centro D.F. and Masa 14. Ivan felt there was a great opportunity to bring his food to Washington which is underrepresented in the region, and Sandoval agreed that it was a worthy endeavor.
I was invited to a media dinner with other bloggers and local journalists so full disclosure that we were wined and dined with a ten course menu. The evening started with special cocktails known as Rakia, a popular alcoholic beverage throughout the Balkans that is created by distilling fermented fruit. Ambar is the only restaurant in the Washington area that serves Rakia, and these cocktails pack some serious strength. In addition, Ambar also has an extensive wine list that includes both wines from the United States as well as some from Serbia, Macedonia, and other locations throughout the Balkan Peninsula. The dishes start to roll out one by one, and Chef Bojan walked us through how each dish was made and the ingredients involved. His passion for the food was evident, and made it even more intriguing for those of us who were experiencing this type of food for the first time.
We started with a rich, creamy, and comforting veal soup topped with fresh chives. It was warm and hearty, and this is a must-try in the upcoming weeks as the weather remains cold. One of my favorite dishes of the evening was the Balkan Salad which really brought out the Mediterranean influences. It was a very simple dish with tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, onions, and a soft aged cheese on top.
Another great bite we enjoyed were the grilled bacon-wrapped prunes stuffed with goat cheese with a blueberry balsamic reduction. They were presented on skewers projecting out of a rock (apparently all of these rocks were handpicked). It was a nice presentation and a perfect shareable dish to snack on before the main meal. The star of the show in my opinion was the beet and goat cheese salad. It's a combination we see everywhere, but there are a few key ingredients in this iteration that really made it stand out: pork cracklins and walnuts. It really was divine, and the plating was beautiful.
Other favorites of the night included the almond and walnut crusted chicken as well as the balkan kebab and the four chocolate dessert. The chicken was served with an apple wasabi slaw which I thought would be too strong (I am not a wasabi fan), but in fact it was quite mild and creamy, and I really enjoyed it. The breading on the chicken was really crispy and tasty, although it was having trouble sticking to the chicken itself. Either way, my plate was cleared. The kebabs were made of beef and pork and were served in a small skillet with sweet roasted peppers and a melted aged cheese. I loved this dish and the roasted potatoes served on the side of the plate were well seasoned and crispy. Finally, we were treated to a wonderful dessert of chocolate, granola, and sorbet which really rounded out the evening and left a great memory of Ambar.
This was probably one of the most exciting dinners I have been to in a long time because I really had no idea what to expect. The food, atmosphere, and the lovely staff bring together the perfect new spot in town. I am very excited about this opening and can't wait to go back with friends to introduce them to these delicious Balkan dishes. Go with an open mind, try something new, and enjoy some Balkan cuisine with a modern twist.