Balkan Cuisine on Capitol Hill
Ambar Restaurant brings the flavors of Serbia to Washington DC.
Story and photos by Renee Sklarew
There are two places to find authentic and memorable Balkan cuisine: One is in Belgrade, Serbia, and the other is in Washington DC.
My hometown, The Nation’s Capital, is an American melting pot, thanks to the hundreds of embassies and international agencies headquartered here. Expats settle in the city and suburbs, some opening up restaurants to quench cravings for the flavors of their homeland. “Open it, and they will come,” is a common refrain among our global restauranteurs.
Washington DC residents can try cuisine from Saudi Arabia, Peru, Laos, Afghanistan and Ethiopia, to name just a few of the many options. A relatively recent addition to the roster is Balkan. Billed as “the first modern, international Balkan cuisine restaurant in DC,” Ambar Restaurant on Capitol Hill, has become a genuine hot spot: For five years, Ambar has ranked among DC’s top five restaurants on TripAdvisor.com.
This year, Michelin recognized Ambar by adding it to the 2019 Bib Gourmand list. Along with recognition for having best brunch by local magazines, Ambar also received a RAMMY Award from the DC restaurant industry for the best “Casual Brunch of 2018.” Not an easy achievement in this brunch-loving town.
Ambar Restaurant is a contemporary, festive chain of Balkan restaurants with three locations: two in the DC area and one in Belgrade. The Balkan Mountains of southeastern Europe are located in Serbia, and the country’s heritage recipes combine Slavic, European and Turkish-influences. Balkans are best-known for a few signature concoctions, including Serbia’s national dish c¢evapi. Ambar’s c¢evapi consists of four small pork and beef sausage kebabs topped with melted cheese, accompanied by potatoes, onion and roasted red peppers. The hamburger version, also on the Ambar menu, is called pljeskavica.
Owner Ivan Iricanin entices newcomers and even established fans to Ambar by offering the “Balkan Experience,” which includes unlimited number of dishes and drinks for $49. You can partake in a limitless lunch for $19.99 (no drinks). For brunch, the cost is $39 (including mimosas!) Keep in mind that diners have a two-hour window to consume this feast, and everyone at the table must participate.
After hearing raves from friends and colleagues, I corralled my husband and hungry college girls to Ambar’s “Bottomless Balkan Brunch” in Capitol Hill’s Barrack’s Row neighborhood on 8th Street SE.
It’s fun to look at Ambar’s menu and taste anything that strikes your fancy. Since there were four of us, we ordered just about everything and shared the small plates. We began our exploration with a Balkan salad or sopska salata—a fresh bouquet of chopped tomatoes, cucumbers and crumbly feta-like cheese. It was served with a basket of housemade breads. Order the Balkanaski namazi to sample three of Ambar’s spreads—kajmak, olivier and ajvar—all traditional accoutrements in Serbia. Kajmak tastes like clotted cream, but is slightly more pungent thanks to fermentation. Ajvar teases the tongue; it’s a smoky relish made from red bell peppers, garlic and chili’s. Olivier is a mysterious, traditionally Russian dish; it looks and tastes like creamy chicken salad with diced egg, potatoes, onions and carrots.
Savory gibanica and burek consist of layers of crisp phyllo dough and either a cheese or meat filling respectively. They’re assembled with a brush of cucumber-mint or garlic yogurt. These were my family’s favorites.
Ambar’s crepes are thick with ample layers of mushroom and Gouda cheese; alternate fillings include ground pork and beef. Serbian sliders are quite popular for brunch as well as lunch. Vegetarians will savor the zucchini sliders topped with ajvar while carnivores will relish the pork slider with house-made spicy mustard.
For brunch, eggs are prepared five different ways, including an impressive salmon Benedict with potato hash and kajmak, skim milk cheese flavored with capers and onion.
At the end of this bountiful parade of Balkan delicacies, we ordered waffles. Ambar puts together a pretty presentation: one crowned with blueberries, one with caramel and pears, and the third with strawberries and Nutella and all topped with whipped cream.
Visit Ambar Restaurant and you may develop a hankering for Balkan cuisine.
Plan A Trip
Ambar Restaurant: 2 U.S. locations: Capitol Hill and Clarendon, Virginia
Where To Stay…
Capitol Hill Hotel
200 C St. SW, Washington, D.C.;
This boutique hotel is close to DC neighborhoods Eastern Market and Barracks Row. From here you can walk to the major attractions listed below plus it is one block from the Capital South Metro Station. All the guest rooms are like small apartments: doubles have two queen beds, and all have kitchenettes and roomy closets. Ask about the Family Getaway Package, which comes with four daily Metro passes and free rollaway beds. Breakfast and Wi-Fi are complimentary. The hotel also hosts a weekday wine reception.
What To Do…
The Supreme Court Visitor Center
Capitol Riverfront and National’s Park
Anacostia Riverwalk hiker/biker trail
The National Air and Space Museum