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We’re sure you have heard of the Balkans, although perhaps it was as long ago as grade school when studying maps. However, unless you have an eidetic memory or a knack for geography, when asked where the Balkans are exactly located, you may need to reference Google. Don’t worry, you’re in good company. We always like to do a little background research before checking out a restaurant we’ve never been to before, especially if we’re not completely sure what part of the world the food is inspired from. This time our research was initiated by acclaimed Chef Richard Sandoval’s and proprietor Ivan Iricanin’s Ambar restaurant. For your future reference, (and ours) the Balkans are a geographical and cultural region of Southeast Europe stretching from Bulgaria to Serbia with strong Mediterranean cuisine influences.
We were invited in to try out some of Ambar’s newest menu items, however when you’ve never been to a place before everything counts as new. And, after asking the waiter what the new items were then having a difficult time retaining the information, we decided to go the route of ordering what looked the most appetizing. We wanted to leave full and satisfied! Some of Ambar’s newest menu choices include the Cheese Pie (crispy phyllo, cucumber yogurt, roasted red pepper sauce), Brussels Sprouts with Bacon (lemon, garlic yogurt), and the Stuffed Sour Cabbage (pork belly, cabbage juice, jasmine rice, yogurt). We did actually have the opportunity to try the Stuffed Sour Cabbage, but not because we requested it. It kind of just showed up at our table, and it didn’t place on our favorites list.
The majority of Ambar’s menu consists of small plates with the intention of encouraging individual tables to share amongst themselves. It was decided that we really love this concept that a lot of restaurants seem to be adopting. It allows each guest to order something of interest (or multiple things) while giving everyone at the table the opportunity and choice of sharing. More things to try are just more things to enjoy and an easier to way figure out what you do and don’t like. The drink menu while slightly limited isn’t overwhelming, and hosts some incredible wines and tasty cocktails including a combination grape red (completely blanking on the name), and the Mango Lemonade cocktail.
Of course we had some favorites, however we were lucky enough that when asked what dishes we enjoyed the most, we couldn’t give a single answer.
- Our meal began with the Grilled Asparagus (veloute, crispy prosciutto, pumpkin, and quail egg), and the Roasted Mushroom Crepes. Both dishes were easily labeled as favorites. The asparagus was tender yet still a little a little crispy, and was complimented well with the veloute which added a creamy texture that tends to pair well with vegetables. The crispy prosciutto and quail egg were certainly treats. And although the asparagus and veloute were nearly perfect by themselves and certainly could have stood alone, they fused nicely with the additional visuals, textures and flavors of saltiness. For those who are vegetarian, the dish can be made to fit your dietary preferences.
- The Roasted Mushroom Crepes (red pepper emulsion, béchamel, gouda) were exceptional in flavor and portion size. Served with three individual crepes, we found that one makes a great appetizer but all three could easily make a single dinner for those with a more subdued appetite. The crepes consisted of the texture all mushroom lovers inherently enjoy, and that earthy, rustic, “living out in the wild” dark, rich flavor. Paired with the gouda and béchamel sauce, the crepes nearly scream “comfort food”. They melt in your mouth and fill your stomach. The crepes also seem to be a favorite among some of the staff as well. What more could you want?
- For our second course we decided to order the Chicken Kebab (grilled cherry tomatoes and pickled onion), and the Drunken Mussels. The chicken kebab was hands down some of the best chicken we’ve ever had. Our only wish was that they served two so it was easier to share. The chicken was packed full of flavor with a nice char on the outside, was perfectly moist and nearly fell off the kebab on its own, and the red sauce served with it was the perfect compliment.
- The last dinner menu dish we wanted to try was Ambar’s Drunken Mussels (rakija, garlic, capers, lemon, cream, baguette). Due to our unfamiliarity with the Balkans, it was necessary to do a quick Google search for rakija. Turns out rakija is a spirit made from fermented fruit and can be quite strong in its alcohol content. Game on! Making shellfish attractive seems nearly an impossible feat, however Ambar’s plump mussels were served in a gorgeous white oblong-ish – for lack of a better word – bowl and came swimming in a pale yellow, deliciously creamy concoction with a fresh, sliced baguette on the side meant for dipping. And of course a bowl for your discarded shells. The mussels appeared to be cleaned thoroughly, contained zero grit, and were cooked perfectly without any hint of chewiness. The tart citrus from the lemon, and saltiness of the capers combined with the rakija and cream all melded into this delicious bowl of seafood greatness that disappeared before our eyes faster than we could satisfy our stomachs. If ordered as a main dish (without plans of sharing), the mussels and baguette is enough food for a single person’s dinner.
- And finally, we ordered dessert. Even with the menu’s description we had no idea what the Forest Gnocchi (chocolate mousse, bitter orange cake, ground chocolate, orange gelee, tarragon gnocchi, passion fruit espuma with black tea sauce) was going to taste or even look like. And then this gorgeous bowl appeared at our table with so many different components it looked like a work of abstract art. We’re also not sure how anyone thought to add tarragon into a dessert, but it worked! The black tea sauce was brought separately and poured into the bowl. Then you’re instructed to stir everything together. Wait, what?! Ruin the beauty that lays before us? Yes. Stir it, and then eat it. All of it. Just keep spooning it into your mouth. The combination of textures and flavors is ingenious, and leaves you wondering what exactly you just consumed. It’s not quite mousse, and it’s nowhere near cake. It’s not even really gnocchi by the end of it. It’s more of a philosophical experience. It exists, therefor it is. And you should EAT IT.
We left Ambar absolutely content and impressed with the entire dining experience. The atmosphere is warm, inviting, and personal. Little decorative nuances like the rustic wood wall accents and the DIY feel of the hanging lights made for interesting visuals to contemplate and admire in between conversation topics. The wait staff was knowledgeable and friendly, and the seating comfortable. We are more than happy to bring friends or a date back to Ambar now that we understand a little more about the cuisine. And, if anyone asks for suggestions about where to dine on Barracks Row, Ambar has made definitely the list of our “must try” restaurants.
523 8th Street SE
Washington, D.C 20003-2835