Ambar: Toying With Tradition

Rustic Balkan specialities—stuffed cabbage, veal stew—get the small-plates treatment at Capitol Hill’s Ambar.
Nibble on meats, cheeses, red-pepper spread, and bacon-wrapped prunes on Ambar’s mezze platter. Photograph by Scott Suchman.
Nibble on meats, cheeses, red-pepper spread, and bacon-wrapped prunes on Ambar’s mezze platter. Photograph by Scott Suchman.

Slideshow: Inside Ambar

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.

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