Ambar, a three-month-old restaurant on Capitol Hill’s Barracks Row, radiates the same hot-spot energy of 14th Street’s Mexican-minded El Centro D.F. and Asian-fusion Masa 14—the two other eateries from partners Richard Sandoval and Ivan Iricanin. Here, though, the food is something Washington hasn’t seen before. Iricanin, a native of Serbia, is the driving force behind Ambar, which unabashedly marries Balkan culinary traditions to current American dining trends—small plates, including lots of vegetable options, with sauces spooned in painterly dollops here and there.
Upon entering, guests encounter wide, whitewashed wooden stairs contrasted with a boldly graphic wallpaper. That rustic/modern dichotomy is also reflected on the menu, where stuffed sour cabbage shares real estate with quail-egg-topped grilled asparagus in a delicate velouté.
Chef Bojan Bocvarov, from Belgrade, seems just the man to execute this idiosyncratic vision. He deftly enriches woodsy mushrooms in slim crepes with béchamel and Gouda, and he knows better than to mess with ribić, tender hunks of slow-cooked veal shank in a stew with carrots and potatoes.
Many dishes are surprisingly simple. Take the white-veal soup with its thin broth and spare ingredients; it’s deeply flavorful but also profoundly uncheffy, as if Grandma Bocvarov arrived suddenly and insisted on making her famous teleća krem čorb for the Americans. Don’t be surprised if it’s the dish you end up dreaming about later.
Here and there, things feel rather too simple—a Caesar salad with wild mushrooms, featuring rock-hard black-squid-ink croutons, fails to coalesce into an interesting dish; sausage with baked beans is insipid and uninspired. On the whole, however, it’s the rustic stuff that stands out most. Asparagus in a velouté can be had at French spots around the city, but ribić? That’s something special.
Then again, there’s a lot to like about the tradition-bucking desserts. Talented pastry chef Danilo Bucan, 26, specializes in forward-thinking confections such as the fantastic Forest Gnocchi—gnocchi-shaped drops of chocolate mousse, bitter-orange cake, orange gelée, and tarragon cream assembled in a stone bowl atop ground salted chocolate. Servers pour black-tea-infused cream over the gorgeous mélange while instructing diners to mix everything up, incorporating the various flavors into each bite. If there’s anything intrinsically Serbian about the dish, we can’t identify it. But it’s a very fun way to end a meal.
This article appears in the April 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.