First Taste: BABA in Clarendon
Wildly popular Ambar adds a cozy little Balkan bar downstairs.
Ivan Iricanin recently opened a subterranean bar beneath Ambar called BABA, which means “grandmother” in Serbian — and I’d really like to meet the grandma who inspired this sophisticated watering hole and coffee house. Is she the kind of grandmother who feeds you nourishing bowls of warm grains, like the ones found on the daytime coffee-shop menu? Or does she swill Serbian brandy and shake her tail feathers to a deejay once the sun goes down, as you can also do in the same spot? I like to imagine she’s both, in one powerhouse package.
BABA carries this dual identity fairly effortlessly. A coffee shop by day, cocktail bar by night, it can be accessed by a separate street entrance to the left of Ambar’s front door, or via the back stairway inside Ambar. No matter how you get there, you’ll be pleasantly surprised when the door opens to reveal a comfortable, 56-seat space with plush seating and upscale touches, blended with rustic design elements such as exposed brick, vintage moulding and salvaged wood.
The cocktail program was crafted by mixology consultant Esteban Ordonez of International Cocktail Group — and although it may sound easy to have someone come in and hand over a bunch of cocktail recipes, the harsh reality is that the staff has to be able to pull it all off after said consultant leaves. Thankfully, the bartenders here do Ordonez’s recipes justice.
Made in BABA’s own dedicated kitchen, the dinnertime (and late-night) snacks vary in size and tastiness, and they arrive at the table in random waves, as small plates so often do. (If you’re one of those people who hates the small-plates concept, plan to eat before you get there. This menu is not for you.)
Standouts include the sautéed mushrooms ($8); a plate of buttery, dry-aged rib eye, which shined in spite of the somewhat gluey Parmesan cream underneath ($13); flavorful salmon tartare atop slices of brown bread; and a fun, silky treat of parsnip-chocolate mousse finished with sea salt and olive oil ($6). Of these, the salmon and the mushrooms were more plentiful, while the rib eye was on the skimpy side. The smallish dessert was perfectly sized; it’s rich and great for sharing.
I wasn’t in love with the smoked Gouda ($8), which is basically an order of fancy cheese sticks drizzled with a cranberry vinaigrette. The same was true of the grilled tuna over coconut-cauliflower puree ($10), which didn’t pack a whole lot of flavor. Neither was horrible; they just weren’t particularly exciting.
Breakfast and lunch options such as grain bowls and sandwiches appear to be less snacky. Daytime beverages include fresh fruit and vegetable juices, and La Colombe pour-overs and espresso drinks.
Cocktails — vibrantly hued, made with care, and sometimes served in gorgeous vintage glassware — are where this basement bar shines. The extensive list of concoctions includes Serbian-inspired ingredients such as beet juice, chamomile-infused rakia (fruit brandy) and slivovitz (plum brandy). One favorite was the Serbian Sombrero ($10), a blend of pink-peppercorn tequila, jalapeño Triple Sec, sour mix and rose water, garnished with hibiscus salt. A close second was the Maraska Slivovitz ($10) enhanced with lime, honey, plum preserves and basil leaves. The managers are happy to explain any mysterious ingredients and sometimes even walk around the dining room with samples of the daily punch. Happy hour runs weeknights from 4-7 p.m., when cocktails are half off and house wines and Heinekens go for $5 each.
Designer Nya Gill (who also happens to be Iricanin’s wife) has successfully pulled together a space that’s stylish and cozy, which is perfect for the transitional nature of a coffee shop that turns into a bar. One wall and part of the ceiling are clad in mismatched old windows, and a gas fireplace mantel backed by antiqued mirrors glows with candles in the evening. Comfy upholstered wing-back chairs are clustered around tables that are generously spaced apart from their neighbors. A raised alcove across from the fireplace features cafe-style seating and an art wall of gold-framed paintings. On a rainy Monday night, the friendly servers and managers cheerfully waited on girls-night-out gatherings and a large table of celebrating friends. The vibe changes once again at 10 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, when a deejay joins the scene.
Go, Wait or Skip?
Go. This place feels like it’s shooting to be a more of a great bar (with good food) than a restaurant, and if that’s so, then BABA is achieving this mission. Plus, I would happily return in the daytime to take advantage of the coffee, free Wi-Fi, plentiful power outlets and (let’s be honest) the tempting-sounding tiramisu oatmeal.
BABA serves coffee, breakfast and lunch daily from 8 a.m.-3 p.m. and dinner daily from 4 p.m.-12 a.m. 2901 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; 703-312-7978; www.baba.bar.