Restaurant Review: Ambar
Balkan comfort food, easygoing service and a stylish setting add up to one happy spot
Positive energy is one of the first sensations you’ll encounter at Ambar, the popular Balkan restaurant that replaced Clarendon’s Boulevard Woodgrill in October. Step inside and you’re apt to find the 16-seat bar and 130-seat dining room abuzz as chatty customers swipe freshly baked pita bread through an array of zesty and colorful spreads, or nibble on specialties like ´cevapi, the paprika-laced ground veal-and-pork sausage otherwise known as Balkan kabob.
At the host stand, warm greetings are a sure bet. If it’s not your first time visiting, you’ll likely be thanked (sincerely) for returning and told how nice it is to see you again. That’s a testament to training and good management, which comes as no surprise to anyone who has eaten at Ambar’s Capitol Hill location (there is also one in Belgrade, Serbia), which owner Ivan Iricanin opened four years ago. Ambar Clarendon’s manager, Jovan Prvulovic, deserves a special shout-out.
Equally inviting is the space, designed by Iricanin’s wife, Nya Gill, which features a stunning Carrera marble bar, an antique white-tin ceiling, hanging plants and a room-length partition wall lined with black-and-white street-scenes from Old Belgrade. It’s a beautiful, wide-open room, although it does come with one built-in drawback: a punishing din resulting from a lack of sound proofing.
On my inaugural visit, Valentin, a Bulgarian server, welcomes our party and mercifully keeps the menu spiel short. “The food here is from 13 different regions of the Balkan Peninsula. One place says they make the best kabobs. One says they make the best cheese. So why not have the best from all of them?”
Why not, indeed. He rightly suggests we go for the Balkan Experience ($35 per person for the entire table), which grants us unlimited selections from more than 50 small-plate offerings, ranging from charcuterie, spreads, savory pies, soups and salads to flatbreads, vegetables and meat and seafood dishes. Think of it as an edible journey through Serbia, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Moldova, Macedonia, Romania and Slovenia, with stopovers in Greece and Turkey. Chef Dejan Pilovic, an alum of Ambar Serbia, is the tour guide.
If the full Balkan Experience feels like too big of a commitment, start with a glass of Balkan wine or a cocktail (I’d suggest a classic Manhattan or martini in lieu of the overly sweet house concoctions) and order a mezze platter of charcuterie to go with it. The beef prosciutto and beef and pork salami are both winners. Your selections will come with adornments: pickled vegetables, cow’s-milk feta, goat cheese and crunchy bacon bits.
I can also speak for the spreads, some of which are made with kajmak, which is like a cross between farmer cheese and clotted cream. Ajvar, a spread of roasted red pepper, eggplant and just the right amount of garlic, is a must-have, as is the creamy roasted garlic spread with sesame oil. Take a pass on the excessively salty smoked salmon kajmak.
Buttery cornbread mini-muffins, deep-fried sourdough balls and puffy pita will seem to arrive endlessly and abundantly at your table, but resist the urge to fill up on them, if only to make room for a multilayered beef or spinach phyllo pie with sour cream and dill. If it feels like a soup day, order a bowl of rich, milky broth rife with chunks of braised veal, carrots and potatoes, and enriched with sour cream.
For meat dishes, make a beeline to the sarma. These sour cabbage rolls are stuffed with rice and pork belly (instead of the traditional ground pork and beef), slow cooked for five hours and served piping hot with a drizzle of sour cream. They are heaven.
Also satisfying: a crispy thin chicken cutlet encrusted with panko, chopped almonds and walnuts that is halved and layered with a cubed green apple salad into a sculpture.
Among the seafood dishes, drunken mussels steamed with rakia (fruit brandy), garlic, capers and lemon are made for bread sopping. Seared rainbow trout, served tender and moist, comes atop a tangy, warm potato salad and adorned with a salsa of finely diced red and yellow peppers.
Salads and vegetables get their due at Ambar. A slaw of watermelon radish, carrots, shredded cabbage, red onions and red bell pepper is bright and perky, simply dressed with vinegar and not sweet. The roasted Brussels sprouts with lemon and garlic yogurt and bacon bits also satisfy thoroughly.
However, a dish of chilled asparagus, butternut squash and potato topped with velouté (stock thickened with roux), a fried egg and crispy prosciutto is a puzzling and unpleasant combination.
In addition to small plates, the menu features pork and lamb rotisserie entrées that come with luscious pot-roasted potatoes and horseradish. On one visit my lamb is overcooked, stringy and salt-licked—which I share when the server inquires—and the plate is promptly removed, at which point I observe a serious discussion taking place with the chef in the open kitchen. A manager offers profuse apologies and dessert.
It is a lovely gesture, to be sure, although dessert is not the highlight of an evening at Ambar. The ledena kocka, a square of chocolate cake covered with a layer of stodgy pastry cream, can’t be saved by the swath of chocolate ganache on top. A cookie selection and a strudel-like pastry with an unduly sweet apple filling are equally underwhelming.
Instead, I recommend ending your meal with a digestif—specifically one of the many Balkan fruit brandies (rakia) from the bar. When you finally make your way through the dining room to leave, the servers and managers will thank you for your patronage and tell you they hope to see you again soon. And mean it.
WHAT TO DRINK
To complete your Balkan experience at Ambar, take a tour of the 35-bottle wine list, which includes selections from Macedonia, Moldova, Serbia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary and Slovenia. (Several are offered by the glass.) Pretend you’re an aficionado by consulting the varietal glossaries that are thoughtfully printed in the menu. White wines range from $27 to $66; reds $27 to $80.
Another must-try is rakia (fruit brandy), considered the national beverage of Bulgaria, Serbia, Montenegro and other Balkan countries. Ambar’s impressive offerings include plum, apricot, quince, pear and raspberry, which make many appearances on the cocktail list. Plum rakia and plum syrup flavor the Belgrade Mule and the Sarajevo Old-Fashioned, while a cherry-infused rakia shows up in the Visnja Sour and Negroni Punch. However, all of these drinks, in my opinion, suffer from being overly sweet. Instead, save the rakia for after-dinner imbibing and drink it straight.
2901 Wilson Blvd., Arlington
Lunch: Monday-Friday: 11 a.m. to
Brunch: Saturday and Sunday:
10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
Dinner: Sunday-Thursday: 4 to
10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday: 4 to 11 p.m.
Small plates: $6-$11
Rotisserie selections: $15-$16
Mixed-grill platters for two: $32-$34
Balkan Experience (unlimited small plates): $35 per person
A small lot behind the restaurant offers two-hour free parking; otherwise, street parking.