Monday, June 15, 2015

Discovering Balkan Cuisine at Ambar

By: Laurie Wallin
Capital Cooking Contributor

What do you think of when you hear “Balkan cuisine?” To be honest, I wasn’t entirely sure, so I was happy to have dinner at Ambar, located in DC’s Barracks Row neighborhood and discover it for myself. I discovered Ambar was born from a dream that owner Ivan Iricanin had – to bring the cuisine from his homeland of Serbia to the U.S., and Ambar’s menu is based on the best dishes from the Balkan Peninsula and were developed by Iricanin and restaurant partner Richard Sandoval’s travels to Serbia in 2012. The menu features slow-cooked meats, fresh seafood and a diverse selection of salads, vegetables, spreads, and meat mezze all expertly prepared by Chef Ivan Zivkovic. Ambar recently updated their menu for spring, so I was excited to visit for the first time and discover what Balkan cuisine is all about.

I began with one of Ambar’s seasonal specialty cocktails – the Pear Daisy made with vodka, triple sec, pear and cardamom. The drink was smooth, light, and refreshing – the perfect start to the meal.

I sampled the Urnebes, which is an aged cow cheese spread with ajvar and chilli flakes, along with the Ajvar (roasted pepper, eggplant, and garlic) and my favorite, the Garlic Beans with onion, dry roasted pepper, and paprika, all served with house-made bread (somun or fried sourdough or mixed). The Urnebes was so smooth and creamy and I really enjoyed the Garlic Beans. 

The meat mezze plate featured several meats, including a Kulen (spicy salami) and Karlovacka (beef/pork salami). 

I tried the organic baby spinach salad with horseradish dressing, which had quite a kick, along with the leek croquettes with ajvar emulsion and breaded with a panko crust. These were delicious and crunchy and not oily at all. 

I’ve had grilled octopus before, but cold octopus was a new one for me – and Ambar did it well. The cold octopus salad was served with garlic beans and sliced cucumber and I loved the way the flavors came together. The Mediterranean branzino with tomato, garlic and spinach was light and delicious – I loved the addition of the tomato, where the acidity balanced the fish’s sweet flavors. 

My favorite dish of the night was the spicy pork sausage with green peas and root vegetable stew. The flavors of the sausage were nicely complemented by the vegetable stew and this dish was incredibly hearty and would be lovely on a cold winter night. This dish also paired wonderfully with a 2010 Bibich R6 Riserva Babic, Plavina, Lasin, from Croatia. I know nothing about wine from this part of the world so I very much appreciated Ambar’s “wine glossary” at the bottom of the wine menu.

Next, I was poured a small Rakia, which is an alcoholic beverage produced by the distillation of fermented organic fruit. It is a popular beverage throughout the Balkans and considered to be the national drink of Bulgaria, Serbia, and Albania, among other countries. This particular Rakia was made with apricot and was served alongside pickled vegetables, and Ambar features an extensive menu of Rakias. How unique!

Ambar’s most popular dessert is the Forest Gnocchi, made with chocolate mousse, bitter orange cake, ground chocolate, orange gelee, tarragon gnocchi, passion fruit espuma and black tea sauce. A real variety of flavors, it is presented beautifully and then up to the diner to use the black tea sauce to mix everything together like a soup.

There is so much to choose from on this menu, and thanks to Ambar’s “Bottomless Balkan,” diners don’t have to choose – for $49pp, you can have unlimited plates and drinks (with a few exceptions) and for $59pp, the entire food menu is game. What a great way to explore more items on the menu.

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