I recently attended a networking get-together, held at Ambar, a Balkan restaurant near Eastern Market which serves up small plates of all your former-Yugoslavian favorites. The food is presented in elegant and visually pleasant ways in bite-sized portions and paired with an awesome, almost exclusively Balkan wine list (from which I tried a very funky white and an animal red from Serbia). There is a glossary of varietals at the end of the list to help people order with confidence, since they understand that not many are familiar with Rebulas or Moravas. The cocktail list is made up of funky mixes of Balkan liquors, such as rakia and plum brandy, with stuff like whiskey, ginger beer and fruit purees. There is a neat, very chic indoor area with a bar lining it, as well as an outdoor patio on the top floor. I definitely recommend the latter, especially for hot summer nights.
What I don’t recommend? Their happy hour menu. While $4 plates and drinks are a pretty good deal otherwise, the stuff on this menu has absolutely nothing to do with the unique theme of the restaurant. The three drinks available for this price are a margarita, a mojito and a mango lemonade made with vodka. The dishes are fine but compared to the authenticity of the normal dinner menu which includes things like stuffed sour cabbage and stick shaped veal schnitzel, the various grilled meats on a stick just don’t really do it for me. As I stuck around to try some of the Serbo/Croat wines, one of the bartenders even told me that I need to come back for dinner because happy hour is not the best representation of the restaurant’s potential. But anyway, here is what they had.
Although I wouldn’t really have ordered it myself, I did get to try Ambar’s Grilled Bacon-Wrapped Prunes which are stuffed with goat cheese and basted with a blueberry balsamic reduction before they are poked through a spear and stuck onto a stone, making it look like the work of some gourmand caveman. The reason I wouldn’t have ordered it? Because bacon wrapped sweet prunes, plums and dates seem to be everywhere these days and I’m just kind of sick of them. I had them in a Spanish tapas place in Cambridge, a Venezuelan place in Boston, a place in Georgetown just last week. Sometimes they come with an almond stuffed inside for added crunch (textural contrast with the mushy, soft fruit), and sometimes with a tangy cheese (flavoral contrast with the sickly sweet taste of the fruit). The bacon is sometimes rubbery, other times it is crispy. The bacon fat always hydrates the dried fruit and adds a smokey, salty flavor to the stuff. This one was nice, though nothing too amazing. The bacon wrapped around the prune was very thinly sliced and thus got crispy on the sides instead of gummy. The prune was stuffed tangy goat cheese, whose acidity cut the sweetness of the prune, along with some of the tart blueberry balsamic reduction which was brushed delicately onto the outside. Yummy, but again, nothing too exciting and not a dish I would order myself in the only well-known Balkan restaurant of the city.
The Leek Croquettes (kroketi od praziluka) seemed to be everyone’s favorite and they became mine too but that might just be because I am obsessed with anything that incorporates cream (in this case thick, flour-packed bechemel) with shallots, onions or leek into one dish. Panko-coating and frying golden brown doesn’t make it any less satisfying either. But, it’s a no-brainer palate pleaser, without too much thought having gone into its conception. Mushy, creamy, zesty leeks coated in light panko and fried to add some crispy coarseness to the outside. The red pepper spread was smokey and okay, but it was more intense in color than flavor.
Then there was also Balkan Kebab (ćevapi), little logs of mixed pork and beef minced, tossed on the grill until it developed nice char lines. These were served with thin slices of roasted peppers which had a smokey roasted flavor mixed with sweet caramelization, which went well with the savoriness of the meat. These sausages were good but they were a little bit chewy, with the casing sticking to my teeth. The meat was also packed a little too densely for me. There were also some meatballs, which were more interesting in flavor than the sausages, and these also had a good grill flavor, but still nothing to write home about. Balkan or not, kebabs are kebabs and these really could’ve been from almost any country in the world.
The best snack was the Beet & Goat Cheese Salad (slojevi cvekle), with delicious chilled roasted orange and purple beets, dabs of tangy, smooth goat cheese, toasted walnuts and salty, fatty pork cracklins. Again, this is not a dish I would associate with the Balkans, but it hit the spot on a warm spring night. The beats had a great texture, tender and firm and moist, allowing the teeth to sink into them nice and smooth. They caramelized sweet on the outside but maintained that subtle mineral flavor, which was offset by the fresh, cool pungency of the goat cheese. The walnuts and the pork cracklins both added a great crunch, while the latter also added a burst of salty, fatty guilt which this otherwise very clean dish desperately needed.
Overall a nice experience altogether, but with the potential to be way better. Next time, I’m tossing the Happy Hour menu and ordering their slow-cooked veal stew with a side of šopska salata.