all photos: Jeff Martin
Fun fact: I was born and raised in Former Yugoslavia/Serbia. And over the last decade that I have spent in this fair city, I cannot (CANNOT) count the amount of times I was asked (by friends, acquaintances, random people looking to start random conversations): “So, what is food like in your country?”, closely followed by “Is there a good Serbian restaurant somewhere in the DC area?”, which, until this week I always had to (sadly) answer with a resounding “NO”. Thankfully, all that is about to change with the opening of “AMBAR“ on Barracks Row (525 8th street SE), a truly-modern-yet-respectful-of-tradition Balkan restaurant and Rakija Bar owned by fellow Serbian native Ivan Iricanin (who is also one of the men behind the popular Masa 14 and El Centro DF restaurant/bar/rooftop destinations on 14th street). So, to say I am excited for this new addition to the Washington dining universe is probably an understatement of the eating year.
Named after a Serbian version for a crop hangar, the 3000 square food space on 8th street SE, designed by AteljeAl (yes, even the architects were imported from Belgrade, for optimizing the Balkan aesthetic, is all untreated wood, copper tops and natural light and is separated into several distinct areas:
- Downstairs is the quieter, more traditional dining, arranged in communal tables and long rows of banquettes (all small plates, ranging in price from $8-$16)
- Upstairs is separated into: a private dining balcony (designed, according to Iricanin: “to make you feel VERY MUCH at home”) and a bar/heater outdoor space which will be be allowed to “get a little more noisy on weekends”.
Said bar will also be host to DC’s very first Rakia Bar, serving 30 varieties of the fabled Former Yugoslavian put-some-REAL-hair-on-your-chest brandys, all natural/made from fermented fruit, including a wide selection of sljivovica (or slivovitz, as transcribed for the more Western Pronounciation), the traditional plum brandy from Serbia. But the Balkan alcohol invasion does not end there.
I, for one, was excited to see both LAV and JELEN beers on the menu, as well as a selection of wines from all parts of former Yugoslavia (Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia, Montenegro and Macedonia) as well as an inventive cocktail list which features Balkan plays on classics like Negroni (with apricot brandy added in), or Smokey Pear which combines mezcal with pear rakia and spice pear puree. All of this, btw, spells late nights and trouble (of the best variety).
The team behind the restaurant is as authentic as it gets with both executive chef (Bojan Bocvarov) and pastry chef (Danilo Bucan) being from the region and whipping up some truly delicious and sophisticated variations on the comfort dishes Balkan people will know and recognize. Former Yugoslavian food, on account of the country’s geographic location in the EXACT center of Europe, is a mix between Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman and Mediterranean influences and features a lot of ingredients which thrive in that region: peppers, plums, goat and sheep cheeses, beets… all of which we will stuff of grill, if we can, and AMBAR carries out those revered preparation traditions, while serving them on DC friendly small plates.
The menu features both the Serbian name for everything and a careful description of everything involved. We’re talking grilled stuffed prunes wrapped in bacon (punjene sljive, with a twist), a gorgeous beet layered salad, venison carpaccio, and a selection of Serbian bbq, which, as any born-bred-and-well-fed Serbian will tell you, is the true test of authenticity.
So much so that when the Cevapi (a minced meat variation on a kebab, which is probably the most popular food item on any Serbian menu) was brought out in front of us, I almost didn’t want to try it because my poor, nostalgic heart would not have been able to handle a non authentic version. But, served on a bed of bright red and yellow peppers and covered with pungent cheese, it tasted just the way I wanted it to taste: perfectly spiced, smokily grilled and melt-in-your-mouth-soft (Jeff, our photographer for the occasion, was made to taste it for a non-biased opinion and I am happy to report he was as much of a fan of it tasting the dish for the first time as I was tasting it for the 1000th). The key, Iricanin says, is finding never before frozen beef and pork so the fine balance involved in combining of the meats and spices goes exactly the same every time. Obviously, the right beef HAS BEEN LOCATED, and we, for one, were ready for seconds.
CURIOUS/READY TO DIVE IN? AMBAR is officially open on Monday, January 14th. Details and reservations here: http://www.ambarrestaurant.com/