I was excited when two neighborhood friends invited me to have dinner with them at Ambar. It isn’t every day you eat at a place specializing in modern Balkan cuisine. What followed was a pleasant dining experience that included energetic service, lovely cocktails, and quite an array of flavors.
Ambar opened in January in the space formerly occupied by Jordan’s 8 on Barracks Row. Highlighting the cuisine of the former Yugoslavia as well as Hungary, Turkey, and Serbia, the food and drink menus offer new takes on classic comfort foods as well as more modern fare. Portions are small and meant for sharing (“tapas style,” as our server notes). I don’t know if tapas are traditional in Serbia, but it’s a nice way to try dishes and flavors that are not common to the American dining scene. The menu includes some vegetarian fare, but check the descriptions carefully as meat is plentiful on the menu and shows up even even as a “garnish” on some of the lighter fare.
The interior of Ambar is filled with warm hues of brown, yellow, amber, and off-white, with serene tables on the first floor and trendier music and a large bar upstairs. There is a rooftop bar set up for the warmer months, accessed off the second floor dining room. The second floor can get a bit noisy, but that’s probably testament to the happy hour specials at the bar.
We sampled dishes from most of the menu categories. Under “pastry” the cheese pie was a winner among all the diners at the table. Creamy, slightly salty cheese was wrapped in phyllo dough and served on a bed of “slaw” — cabbage, cucumber, and yogurt reminiscent of tzaziki sauce. The roasted mushroom crepes were delicate yet substantial for the small size of each pocket. An order brings three of the pouches filled with mushrooms, cheese and pepper. The panko crusted pepper was like an grown-up jalapeno popper. Filled with cheese, the pepper was crunchy and not greasy on the outside and soft on the inside, and served on a bed of creamy whipped eggplant that I would take over mashed potatoes any day.
About half the menu is dedicated to meat and poultry, and the options are varied. Walnut and almond crusted chicken was crunchy and full of nutty flavor without drying out the white meat beneath. Grilled duck came sliced over a bed of sauteed, sweet onions. Sadly it arrived without its skin and was a bit bland (probably the only disappointment of the night). The Balkan Burger was described by our server as his favorite dish, and I can see why. The spiced meat patty is served open-faced on toast with a spread I can only describe as a better-than-pimento-cheese and cucumber yogurt sauce. A side of crunchy potato wedges rounds out the presentation, which was probably the largest portion of all the dishes we ordered but would be more than enough for one person for lunch. The provided knife was not quite strong enough to cut the toast, though, so this dish seems best eaten deconstructed.
Desserts are inventive. I have a hard time describing what goes into the Forest Gnocchi, but will say the swirling of chocolate, orange, tarragon and tea tastes were compelling and helped me overlook the awkward texture combinations the dish posed. The Balkan Apple Pie was more straightforward, served like little pie cigars with baked apple ice cream and caramel.
There is an extensive Balkan wine list, offered by the glass and the bottle. The menu offers a glossary of the grapes used in the wine for those of us less familiar with the native fruits of Hungary and Latvia. Several specialty cocktails round out the list of wines and beers. My Belgrade Mule was a refreshing combination of sljivovitz old plum brandy, ginger beer, and lime juice.
I appreciate the servers’ abilities to navigate the menu and do so with a smile. The warmth of the welcome, combined with the range of new flavors will make Ambar a place for me worthy of a second bite.