One of the best things about DC is its cultural diversity. People of all nationalities flock to DC to make it their home, and that’s why this city’s restaurant scene offers cuisine from around the globe. Where else can you eat Ethiopian Beef Key Wot for lunch, Russian Golubtsy for dinner and then have tapas at midnight like the Spanish? Now we have the opportunity to try traditional Balkan dishes with a modern twist through the newly opened Ambar in Barracks Row. This concept is brought to us by Serbian national Ivan Iricanin and the very successful Richard Sandoval, both are also partner in DC favorites Masa 14 and El Centro D.F. downtown.
Balkan fare is typically heavy and served in large portions, but DC is a small plates town. Ambar’s dishes are mostly small plates though the portions tend to be generous. The flavors are rich and savory and it struck me as European comfort food.
I like to start a restaurant experience with a good drink and the cocktail list at Ambar is well worth investigating. They are one of the few places in this country that serves rakia.
Rakia is made from distilled fermented fruit, such as plums, pears, figs or quince. I decided to try the Zagreb Rakia Sour which was made from grappa rakia, lime, bitters and egg whites. It was tart, but balanced with a slight raisin flavor, very unique and I really enjoyed it. Another great cocktail on the menu is the Skoplje which combines Mezcal and pear rakia for a sweet and smoky drink that’s cut by a little bit of citrus from a lime. Ambar offers an extensive selection of Balkan wine as well and you can read the wine review by Clay Battin here.
Now on to the food…
The White Veal Soup with sour cream & fresh chives was amazing. The soup coated your tongue and had a comforting feel and the veal was subtle and delicate. There was a little bit of lemon flavor that reminded me of Greek chicken soup. It is a really well rounded soup and I would come back for it alone.
The Grilled Calamari was another favorite. Perfectly cooked and tender calamari sat on a bed of earthy Swiss chard and potatoes. There was just a hint of charring on it form the grill that gave it a nice smoky flavor. I was told by the server that this dish reminds her of the calamari they serve in Montenegro. It was served with a Mediterranean sauce that is made out of sun-dried tomatoes, onions, garlic, pepperoncini and olives. They also have this same sauce on the tables in little jars as a condiment.
If you are a cheese lover you should give the Cheese Pie a try. Crispy phyllo dough encased a rich goat cheese. It is served on top of a refreshing tzatziki sauce with a couple swipes of red pepper emulsion. Be warned, it’s a filling dish that will stick to your ribs.
We couldn’t get enough of the savory and delicate Roasted Mushroom Crepes. The mushrooms were well seasoned with fresh herbs and I definitely tasted the aromatic flavor of thyme. They were drenched is a rich a creamy Béchamel sauce with Gouda.
The restaurant has a sleek modern feel with rustic accents, you get the feeling of being in an expensive cabin in the mountains. Many staff members seemed to be from the Balkan's and were proud to share their culinary heritage with us, as well as help us navigate the menu with warm and inviting service. Ambar is a good spot for a date or just to try some new flavors.