Ambar’s grilled calamari (grilovane lignje) and grilled asparagus (grilovane špargle). [Photographs: Brian Oh]
If you’re unfamiliar with Balkan food and what cultural intricacies differentiate Bosnian and Serbian cuisine, you’re not alone. There is little to no Balkan representation in D.C.’s food scene, that is, until last month when chef Ivan Iricanin (Masa 14 and El Centro partner) opened up Ambar on Barracks Row. Designed as a modern take on traditional dishes from Iricanin’s native Serbia, Ambar offers a selection of small plates designed to introduce Washingtonians to the concept of Serbian cuisine.
The accidental inspiration for the restaurant came when Iricanin missed his return flight from Belgrade and ended up at the “Small Factory of Taste” restaurant, which serves modernized Balkan food.
Take, for instance, the grilled bacon wrapped prunes ($6, grilovane punjene šljive) which are exactly what they sound like, but the presentation is emblematic of Ambar’s approach. Each prune is individually skewered and then ensconced in an unfinished stone like a delicious porcupine. The ćevapi ($10), a traditional Balkan kebab dish, is traditionally served as a minced beef kebob with onions and bread, but Iracanin’s ćevapi is a beef and pork mix and served with a salad of grilled peppers, garlic, and olive oil in a cast iron skillet. Just enough variation to differentiate itself from standard Serbian fare, but with deference to traditional flavors.
Vials of plum and cherry rakia
Over on the drinks menu, you’ll find a cocktail list representing the Balkan spirit of choice, brandy. Rakia, a fruit brandy that’s popular in the Balkans and imported for Ambar, is prevalent in drinks like the Sofia ($11): apricot rakia, campari, and sweet vermouth. You’ll also find a couple of Serbian beers, Jelen and Lav, and a number of Serbian wines, but you should definitely sample small, shot-sized vials of straight rakia. Slivovitz (plum rakia) is, in fact, Serbia’s national drink.
Ambar’s general manager, Uroš Smiljanić, explained to me that the name Ambar simply comes from the word “wooden place where they store corn.” If that doesn’t sound quite so exciting, you just need to see the interior design of the restaurant, which employs plenty of exposed, unfinished wood to represent the juxtaposition of tradition and modernity.