I was first exposed to Balkan-chic Ambar a few months ago in the context of a patio happy hour event and wasn’t too blown away by just about anything. I had heard of their rakia program and Balkan wine selection, and was left thoroughly disappointed by the happy hour cocktail menu, which consisted of a margarita (tequila), a mojito (rum) and a mango lemonade (vodka). The party-size finger-foods didn’t impress me too much either – lukewarm meatballs and kebabs, some fried stuff, salad-bites in an oversized soup spoon. Empty tricks.
I do, however, remember thinking that the dinner menu looked great, the Serbian translation next to each dish title serving as a good indicator of authenticity. I also seem to remember the bartenders and servers having this knowing look as they watched me skim through the rather shallow happy hour menu, as if they knew something I didn’t know. They did. They knew to skip the happy hour and go for the dinner. Dinner is where all the good stuff is, inside the dimly lit, high ceilinged Meatpacking District style dining room, not out on the sunny bar patio.
My instincts turned out to be correct. Since that afternoon I’ve had quite a few chats around town about Ambar with people in the business of palate pleasing. A Bulgarian bartender at the W took a noticeably long time making my cocktail so that he could rattle on about the ćevapi he had there. Restauranteurs nod in reference to the place during their rants about the dynamic nature of DC’s new culinary landscape. The other night I got to revisit Ambar and do it the way it’s meant to be done: as a multi-course dinner with plenty of rakia and conversation with our server, who was truly intelligible about a cuisine that she had probably never heard of before working there. The experience was pleasant from start to finish. My dining companion and I left impressed and happy.
It was in the high 90s when we arrived to Ambar and Šopska Salata as our first dish hit the spot perfectly, cooling us down and rehydrating us with the crisp veggies therein. As far as I know, in the Balkans vegetable salads beat green salads in popularity. In other words, salads are usually a mix of hearty veggies and not really based on leafy greens such as arugula, spinach or lettuce. They are seasoned lightly and bound by only a bit of oil or vinaigrette, rather than mayonnaise or cream. Th flavors of the fresh veggies dominate. Šopska salata, specifically is a mix of cucumbers, fresh red and yellow bell peppers, tomato and white onion roughly chopped into bite-sized pieces, drizzled with olive oil and topped with crumbles of aged brine cheese. I could’ve easily eaten just a giant bowl of this alone. The veggies were deliciously crunchy and cool, a tiny bit slippery from the vinaigrette but not overly oily in the least bit. The sweetness of the peppers and mild heat from the onions were rounded out by the salty, nutty aged cheese whose texture was almost like that of ricotta – crumbly little bead curds which melted and turned creamy smooth when pushed against the roof of my mouth. The acidity of the cheese made the salad even more refreshing and didn’t weigh down the ingredients in the least.
I had tried the Balkan Kebabs (ćevapi) once before at Ambar and had not been impressed, probably because they were served as canopes, circulating a terrace party at happy hour with those miserable little clear toothpicks pierced through them. As it turns out, they completely change when served in a cast iron skillet on a bed of warm roasted peppers in a more intimate setting. I would definitely go with ćevapi if asked to choose a signature dish at Ambar, and I must say that Chef Zivkovic stays pretty damn close to the real thing here. The fat little fingers of grilled pork and beef blend had a very nice savory flavor, minimally seasoned with a bit of garlic and maybe some paprika, along with black pepper. Uneven lumps of minced meat, extra succulent from the use of pork belly, with a hint of smokiness from the grill but not an overpowering one. The exterior of the kebabs caramelized glossy. Some more of that aged soft goat’s milk cheese had been shaved over the top; as it melted from the heat coming off the meat, it licked the slightly sweet caramelized exterior with an extra bit of salty, nutty flavor.
This presentation of the ćevapi zoomed in on one of the classic accompaniments of the dish, while neglecting another. The kebabs were served on a fluffy bed of slippery smooth roasted red pepper strips, which echoed the little pile of minced red pepper that usually appears on a plate of ćevapi in Bulgaria or Serbia. These were great. Yes, they were made with plenty of oil, but this was just enough to hydrate the kebabs which were otherwise on the dry side. The sweetness of the roasted peppers was rounded out by the acidity of the cheese, so that worked out great as well. The ingredients classically paired with ćevapi were neglected in this case, no doubt in an effort to Americanize the dish and make it more approachable. In the Balkans, ćevapi is normally served with a heap of chopped white onions and a pita-liked flat bread called lepinja to stuff it into or tear pieces of. In this case the bread was replaced by a few very nice, crispy fried potato wedges, while the onion was demoted to a few raw micro-rings which were really only there as a nod to the classic. These modifications made the dish lighter, prettier and easier to share – a “small plate” in keeping with that current dining trend in the U.S. – while the fundamental flavors in the dish stayed faithful to the traditional.
What the ćevapi dish strategically left out in terms of bread, the Bacon-Wrapped Chicken Breast Pita Slider replenished in the form of fluffy rounds of lepinja flat bread topped with ayvar (a Serbian roasted pepper spread I am obsessed with called), a few dollops of kaymak (smooth clotted cream), pickled onions and plump, juicy chicken breasts wrapped in a thin film of bacon. This dish is part of Ambar’s summertime pita slider series, which adds three very comprehensive but relatively light dishes to the already diverse menu. I chose the Bacon-Wrapped Chicken Breast because it had the most to do with what I know about Balkan cuisine. The bacon-wrapped chicken, reminiscent of the chicken wrapped in caul popular in the Balkans, was delicious. The meat was cooked perfectly, remaining soft and moist on the inside. The bacon wrapped around was stretched thin, thin, thin and gave the chicken a bit of extra smokey, salty flavor and crispy texture without becoming a thick, greasy mess.
My favorite part of this dish, however, was the ajvar spread onto the warm, fresh pita bread. Why? Because, first of all, it’s delicious. Red peppers are roasted whole on a plate and the charred skin is removed from the caramelized flesh, which is then ground into a pulp and combined with sunflower oil and garlic. It’s creamy, very light and has that wonderful natural sweetness of roasted pepper, combined with a slight smokiness from the roasting and added garlic. It tastes like summer. I’m nostalgic for it, which brings me to the second reason for calling it my favorite – it’s basically zacuscă under the guise of a Serbian name. Zacuscă is the Romanian version of the roasted pepper spread (with roasted eggplant added), and is popular in Hungary under the name zakuszka. Just one bite of the stuff (served on the bread, as it normally appears in all three cuisines) brought back a flood of memories. One such memory was of a Transylvanian-Hungarian participant of my program at the 2013 Smithsonian Folklife Festival preparing it, along with vinetta, at a food demonstration. The stuff went great with the chicken too, which took on its charismatic flavors and the salty, creamy kaymak added a great balance to the sweetness of the pepper. The only thing I would change about the dish is to make the layer of ayvar smear a bit thicker. No explanation necessary.
Ambar’s Grilled Bacon-Wrapped Prunes, stuffed goat cheese and almond, drizzled with blueberry balsamic, I have tried and described before. They are still not my favorite. The balsamic is too sweet and overpowers the acidity of the goat cheese. The almond gets a bit soggy so it fails to offer that textural contrast of crunch which would be so vital to the mushy bite. Otherwise the bacon wrapped around the prunes is great, thin enough to stay crispy but still give enough salty, piggy flavor to the appetizer. And the presentation rocks… no pun intended.
Next came something I know wasn’t really too Balkan at all but which was delicious nonetheless – the Roasted Mushroom Crepes with a blend of four different mushrooms, béchamel and gooey, soft gouda cheese melting all over. I know this isn’t a Serbian grandma-style original recipe the same way that I know that Hortobágyi palacsinta (a paprika flavored meat stew crepe) is not traditionally Hungarian – it was invented for a world fair. Crepes in Eastern and Central Europe are sweet, not savory, with fillings including fruit jam, quark cheese, honey, chocolate or Nutella. Nonetheless this “fusion” palačinka (from the Hungarian word palacsinta which is borrowed from the Romanian plăcintă which goes back to the Latin placenta, meaning “small flat cake” – I’m an etymology nerd….) was fabulous and the earthy mushroom thing did remind me of Balkan cuisine, even if this was just a surface association. The mushrooms were chopped to a great texture, firm but tender and irregular in shape to make each bite interesting. These were bound together with creamy béchamel and wrapped into a moist, thin, pillow-soft pancake which had smokey, nutty gouda oozing all over it. A few dots of roasted red pepper emulsion (so, an emulsified ayvar!) were spread lazily over to give the earthy, funky, peppery mushrooms a nice fresh, sweet flavor to contrast against. A sinfully rich, silky smooth dish. Biting into it made me feel like a fat cat licking cream from a porcelain bowl before stretching out on a velvet pillow.
The drink menu at Ambar is wonderful. A very high percentage of the wines are Serbian, Croatian, Macedonian, Moldovan or Bulgarian and there is a fantastic variety within the program. A glossary of Balkan varietals flanks the list to encourage guests to try something they probably haven’t had too many chances to try before. Last time I was at Ambar, I ended up tasting a few Serbian reds and it was a great experience as the range of profiles went from clean and fruit forward to mineral animal funk. Eight out of eleven of their specialty cocktails are made with rakia and plum brandy, cleverly replacing the more traditional bases. While my dining companion had the burly Sarajevo Old Fashion, with rye whiskey, bitters, cane sugar and an old plum brandy that actually managed to stand up to the flavors of the whiskey, I had the more delicate Tricycle 007 Manhattan. The martini blanco vermouth and bitters were there, but the whiskey was substituted by a Serbian quince rakia, Dunjevača, which gave it a the perfect clean kick. We also tried a slightly painful grappa rakia and a wonderfully smooth cherry rakia which slid down the throat like honey. I was very impressed by the variety of brandies represented on the cocktail menu and became very nostalgic for summer nights in Hungary, when my friends and I would drink the Hungarian version of the stuff (palinka) on the wharf of the Danube.
When our server came around at the end to ask if we wanted to see a dessert menu I was poised for no. I’m not really big on sweets and I couldn’t really imagine Ambar having something Balkan-y enough to warrant trying. I was expecting that unfortunate cheesecake-chocolate cake-sorbet dessert menu typical of restaurants that specialize in the authentic cuisine of a region not too well known for desserts…like Chinese restaurants, for example. Turns out I was way off. I asked our server if she could recommend any signature dessert that would be especially popular and her response made it pretty obvious that yes, dessert is very much a thing here and leaving without trying one is a wasted experience. Pastry Chef Danilo Bucan, only 26 years old and from Serbia, is given free rein over the sweet side of Ambar. Although there are only five dishes on the dessert menu, each one of these five is overflowing with imagination and wit. Our dessert in particular was a great one, smart and cool with a sense of humor- The Forrest Gnocchi.
It came out in a dark ceramic lava bowl, in line with the caveman chic earthy vibe hinted at by the presentation of the prunes. Little mounds of this and that, an array of textures and colors which made the dish look like a painting I would hang up on any wall of my home. There were stalagmites of chocolate mousse and fluffy orange cake with bitter orange gelee rubbed on, a bright yellow passion fruit foam in the center, ground chocolate crumbles all around. Little green lumps of chewy tarragon gnocchi peeped out from among the other ingredients and became glistening wet when a creamy black tea flavored sauce was splashed over the dish. After encouraging us to get a good look at the picturesque spread, our server defiled it by rubbing a spoon over the entire thing and mixing all the ingredients together into a grotesque grey mash. It was awesome. My dinner companion and I scooped up spoonfuls of the delicious rubble, delighting in the different flavors and textures therein. Although the mixing broke up the gnocchi into smaller pieces, the pasta maintained its soft, chewy texture and that earthy green tarragon flavor came through, packing a punch. This herbal element went beautifully with the deep flavors of the chocolate which was in turn picked up by the slightly bitter orange peel gelee. The passion fruit added acidity and a mild, exotic sweetness. All these flavors were soaked up by the bits of soft orange cake, whose texture was complemented by the crunchy little bittersweet cocoa nibs. Very well balanced, playful and fun to eat.
Chef Ivan Zivkovic is doing something good with Ambar. With his colorful array of small plates featuring cleaned up versions of Balkan classics, he is taking careful, strategic babysteps towards introducing the cuisine of his home to foodies in DC. Simple, honest food is dressed up nice and presented along with traditional cocktails which playfully incorporate rakia. Dinner ends in a bang, the artwork of Bucan. Is Ambar setting the groundwork for Balkan and Central European food in DC? Will we be ordering takeout from the little Bulgarian place down the street in a few years?
I hope so.