Balkan Bistro Infuses New Flavors Into Tapas and Other Tired Trends
Published: Friday, January 31, 2014
Updated: Friday, January 31, 2014 00:01
There seem to be two crazes sweeping restaurants these days: tapas-style menus and brussel sprouts. Ambar checks both of these boxes, but the new Balkan-inspired restaurant also offers much more.
I stepped into Ambar, the bustling new restaurant on 8th street, not quite knowing what to expect, nor even quite sure what fell under the umbrella of “Balkan cuisine.” As I entered, I felt as though I was stepping into a little urban-chic French bistro. While the same vibe seems to be rapidly replicated in nearly every new restaurant emerging in D.C., Ambar placed a twist on its décor with several sleek features that gave the space a modern flair, and the menu was truly unique.
Our server suggested that we each order three plates, with each plate ranging between $8 and $12, but in all honesty we could have ordered far less. We started the evening with a spicy crab kajmak and lavash chips ($10). The kajmak was good, though I have to admit we were having some serious regrets when we spied the bread basket on the table next door, which we had foregone for the dip. The crab kajmak was good but it lacked the “spice” promised on the menu. Despite this slight letdown, every dish that followed was amazing. The cheese pie ($6), roasted mushroom crepes ($8) and chicken and sausage flatbread ($9) followed the kajmak. The cheese pie featured layers of flaky phyllo dough stuffed with a melted mixture of exotic cheeses served atop a cucumber yogurt — nothing not to like. The mushroom crepes, a thick layer of sauteed mushrooms folded inside a tender crepe with melted Gouda drizzled over top, disappeared within minutes. The savory chicken and sausage flatbread appeared on a long wooden board, shaped like an oblong pizza, but that is where the similarities ended. The soft, chewy dough was covered with a rich spread, not quite the usual tomato sauce one often finds atop pizzas, and sprinkled with bits of richly seasoned sausage and pickled onions.
Then the brussel sprouts appeared. I’ve had a lot of brussel sprouts: They seem to be this year’s hottest food fad, featured on the menu of every restaurant in D.C., yet these managed to differentiate themselves. While everyone appears to be going for the caramelized brussel sprouts tossed with bacon or pancetta, Ambar ensured the brussel sprouts ($7) retained their crunchy texture and placed them on a bed of creamy lemon and garlic yogurt sauce.
We also ordered the calamari ($9), which was amazing, with fresh herbs, diced pepper and lemon vinaigrette. Beware if you are not a seafood fan — I thoroughly enjoyed the chewy calamari, but the rest of the table had been looking for fried calamari, not grilled.
Our last round of dishes included a tender, grilled duck breast with an orange-glazed onion ($11), stuffed-sour cabbage ($9) and a Balkan kabob ($10). The duck breast was wonderfully sweet,as the kitchen layered slices of tender duck breast with thick, orange-glazed onions, but the stuffed sour cabbage was the real winner. A truly authentic Balkan dish, the pork belly and jasmine rice wrapped in sauteed cabbage leaves and served with a thick yogurt dressing was fantastic. Yet, I also have to include a shoutout to the Balkan kabob. While the kabob was the last dish on our table and we all barely had room to take more than a bite, it was definitely one of my favorite dishes of the night. The kabob included an array of mini sausages, each with a strong, sharp taste, sprinkled with cheese and served atop a bed of roasted peppers and onions.
Overall, the food was spectacular and only improved as the night progressed. However, the service was slow, with our final dish arriving approximately two hours after we had ordered it. Luckily, at that point we were so full we could barely enjoy more than a bite, and I believe the dishes were well worth the wait. I would highly suggest Ambar if you are looking to try something a bit different. The restaurant offers something for everyone with a wide range of vegetables, seafood and meat. Ambar has taken on many of the dining trends sweeping D.C., but it has managed to do it right — you’re not going to get the same experience somewhere else.