I’m Serbian. When my mom sent me three emails with links to articles about Ambar, a new Serbian-owned Balkan restaurant in Barracks Row, I could not wait to try it! Ambar did not disappoint.
Just for some background on the concept behind the restaurant, I think my readers should know that we Serbs eat a large and (usually) meaty main dish accompanied by a side salad and bread, to balance the heaviness of the meat. When trying to figure out how to Americanize Serbian food to ensure Ambar’s success, owner Ivan Iricanin decided to use a small plate concept, combining traditional Serbian flavors within the dish. I’ll tell you what I thought about this style further on.
I went to Ambar for Valentine’s Day, when they had a special three course menu for $35 (a la Restaurant Week). This is the story of a wonderful and nostalgic gastronomic journey.
1st Course: Šopska Salata (Balkan salad)
For the first course, I got a šopska salata, or Balkan salad as it was renamed for diners unfamiliar to our cuisine. As most Serbian salads aren’t lettuce-based, (which is the case in American) the salad was made of chopped tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and onions and was topped with aged cheese. It tasted just like what my grandma makes for me at home! I recommend putting some of the seasoned oil that is put on the table into the salad. I found that I had a lot of onions left over, so the onion-to-all the other vegetable ratio was a bit high for my taste.
2nd course: Gibanica (cheese pie) & Grilovane Špargle (grilled asparagus)
My second course was gibanica, or cheese pie, another dish my grandma makes for me regularly. This dish is essentially phyllo dough and aged cheese. After having a cheese-heavy salad, I though the aged cheese of the gibanica was a bit overwhelming. Ambar served it on a bed of cucumber yogurt and a streak of red pepper spread. I would have liked a larger quantity of these garnishes to counter the sour flavor of the cheese.
My boyfriend got the grilovane špargle (grilled asparagus) and it was AMAZING! I like and appreciate asparagus, but I never thought it could be flavorful and delicious. The asparagus absorbed all the flavors like it was a marinated steak. It was served with velouté sauce, prosciutto, pumpkin, purple potatoes (which I didn’t know existed) and a quail egg.
3rd course: Ćevapi (Balkan kebab) & Ribić (veal stew)
The course I was looking forward to the most was the final one: the ćevapi (Balkan kebab). Cevapi, or ćevapcići, are THE quintessential Serbian dish. This pork and beef sausage dish is hearty, juicy Serbian comfort food. It really shows you our love of meat. You can get ćevapi in any restaurant in Belgrade or in its hamburger form, the pljeskavica (pronounced plyeskavitza), from a fast food kiosk on the street. It is traditionally served with diced onions, bread, bread and/or fries. Ambar’s version came with four kebabs (this was smaller than a typical Serbian portion, but I was stuffed by the this course) served on a bed of roasted red peppers and topped with melted cheese. It also came with potato wedges and a tiny onion garnish, an homage to the traditional sides served with ćevapi.
The ćevapi tasted like the dish I know and love. I love roasted peppers and was glad they were served with the kebabs, but they were dripping in grease. I wish there were more potatoes and onions to balance out the heaviness of the meat. The serving style of the dish was anything but authentic, but the ćevapi were pretty tasty.
I sampled the ribić (veal stew), which was served in a tiny lidded pot. It was prepared with kajmak, a traditional Serbian clotted cream, and onions and carrots. Ambar succeeded in disguising a simple Serbian dish favored by older generations into an exotic, gourmet novelty.
Dessert: The Four Chocolates
For dessert I shared the Four Chocolates ($8) which consisted of:
dark chocolate biscuit, dark chocolate mousse, milk chocolate chantilly, almond crumble and passion fruit espuma, served with raspberry sorbet.
The only Serbian connection I can draw to the dessert is that Serbia is the #1 raspberry producer in the world (you can verify that here and here). I don’t know where the sorbet came from, but the flavor was divine. The only complaint I have about the dessert was that it wasn’t big enough, although I realistically couldn’t have eaten anymore. As a person who has a hard time choosing between a rich, chocolatey dessert or a refreshing, fruity one, this was the best of both worlds. The combination of all the flavors and textures was wonderful.
The Bottom Line:
Overall, Ambar met my expectations as far as quality and flavor were concerned. The only things I would amend would be to increase the serving sizes and to serve all the courses at once, instead of in succession, so as to balance out the heaviness of some of the flavors. As a Serb, I was ready for a feast of meat, but I had trouble getting through the kebab course because I was full on salad. I think Ambar did a good job of Americanizing Serbian food by serving the dishes as small plates and one after the other; my American boyfriend approves “100%.” I am definitely coming back again and introducing my friends to all the difficult-to-pronounce and delicious food I tell them so much about.
523 8th St SE (Barracks Row)
Washington, DC 20003