Congrats to Ambar, which OpenTable recently proclaimed Best Value in Washington’s Diners’ Choice awards. (Each month, OpenTable analyzes 400,000 new diner reviews and sorts the results by category.)
Located on Barracks Row, Ambar (which means “barn”) showcases Balkan flavors with a “modern twist.” The menu is created by corporate chefs Bojan Bocvarov and Ivan Zivkovic. The term Balkan–old Turkish for “chain of mountains”– refers to south central European countries including Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, Bulgaria and Greece.
Proprietor Ivan Iricanin. arrived on Capitol Hill in a round-about way. Born in Trstenok, Serbia, he came to the United States in 2000 through a work study program. A year later he returned to Serbia and opened Forum Bar, while undertaking marketing jobs. Eventually, he returned to the States. In 2009 he hooked up with Richard Sandoval and chef /owner Kaz Okochi to open Masa 14 in Logan Circle. Two years later they added El Centro D.F. nearby.
In January 2013, Iricanin tapped the cuisine of his homeland to unveil Ambar. A second Ambar followed two years later in Clarendon (Arlington). This past March, Iricanin launched Street Guys Hospitality, which owns and operates nine concepts: Barracks Row Ambar, Ambar in Clarendon, Ambar Belgrade, and several other restaurants in Serbia.
Iricanin discovered chef Bojan Bocvarov during a culinary research trip back home. In Belgrade, he stumbled upon a restaurant whose name translates to “Little Factory of Tastes.” There, Bocvarov was dividing his menu between “traditional” and “imaginative.” The latter creations were modern, lighter twists on classic Serbian fare. Iricanin was impressed. Bocvarov soon followed Iricanin to the States.
Sous chef Ivan Zivkovic grew up in the Serbian capital, Belgrade, where his first job was in a seafood restaurant. “This is where I really recognized my passion for the culinary arts,” he told the Hill Rag several years ago. “The style here allows me to be creative, to express myself.”
Manager Dimitrije Popdimitrovski, who shuttles between Barracks Row and Clarendon, says, “We keep prices down since we serve so many customers—about 150 per day during the week, 100 more on weekends.” For unlimited small plates, prices start at $35 per person (excluding tax and gratuity). The Balkan Experience–unlimited small plates and drinks–are $49 per person. These options must be ordered for the entire table. Ala carte items range from $6 to $13.
At a recent dinner, our group of four ordered “small plates” from the regular ala carte menu: beet tzatziki, Balkan kebabs (cylinders of ground beef and veal); “drunken” mussels (rakia, garlic, capers, lemon); grilled lamb kebabs and stuffed sour cabbage. That last dish is Ambar’s top seller, and I can see why. Stuffed with chunks of pork, the generous, pungent dish is delicious.
Besides wine and beer, the bar dispenses innovative cocktails including the Sarajevo Old Fashioned with plum rakia and bourbon; pomegranate Collins with vodka, plus other concoctions. Speaking of rakia: Ambar’s menu devotes a full page to myriad flavors of the potent fruit brandy. Ordered separately, cocktails are $9 to $13.
Sensibly priced at $8 per glass, the house red and white wine is more than drinkable. Tagged at just $2 dollars more, Bulgarian Cabernet Sauvignon is smooth and mellow. Open daily for lunch and dinner, Ambar is at 523 Eighth St. SE, near Eastern Market Metro (Blue/Orange/Silver lines). Warning: At night, decibel level is high. For more information, call 202-813-3039 or visit www.ambarrestaurant.com.
Africa on the Wharf
Kwame Onwuachi is back. In October, he unveiled Kith and Kin in the District Wharf. The successor to his short-lived Shaw Bijou, Kwame’s 96-seat Afro-Caribbean restaurant is ensconced in the Wharf’s stylish InterContinental Hotel. Décor is muted with shades of beige and grey. Placemats look woven, perhaps a nod to Africa? Bar stools are comfy, with padded seats and backs. A towering wine wall—holding nearly 400 bottles—looms between the main dining area and a private party space. Artist Emily Eisenhart’s enormous black and white abstract mural, featuring chefs’ quotes, dominates a back wall.
The moniker Kith and Kin refers to Onwuachi’s multi-ethnic ancestry, as he draws on his Caribbean, Creole, and African cultural roots. He was born in the Bronx 27 years ago. Besides spending a few years in Nigeria with his grandfather, he also lived in New Orleans with other family members.
At a recent lunch, warm coco bread arrived for nibbling. In contrast to so many oversized restaurant plates, Kith and Kin’s portions are miniscule. A $29 “meat and cheese” tasting was a black plate dabbed with smoked chicken pate and quince jam, a swirl of delicious jerk duck prosciutto, and two kinds of cheese. Lacy, paper thin pumpernickel slices accompanied the dish. Presentation was dramatic; our server whisked a pear-shaped dome from the plate with a flourish, releasing a cloud of aromatic smoke.
We shared an entrée: A pair of “torched” mackerel pieces were accompanied by tongue-tingling, golden-hued jollof rice and what resembled miniature tomatoes. We did not get to heartier dishes like oxtail stew and curried goat. The dessert menu looked tempting: “puff puff,” fried dough with sorghum and cashew granola, chocolate rum cake and sorbets. Next time.
Cocktails—including “gin and reggae” (made from Jamaican rum, Plymouth gin and mango tea), are tagged in the mid-teens. Likewise: wines-by-the glass. Lunch for two, including a skimpy glass of wine and an ice tea, came to $97 before tip. Service was excellent.
Located at 801 Wharf St. SW, Kith and Kin is open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Call 202-878-8600 or visitwww.kithandkindc.com.
Barracks Row has a new Asian eatery, Torai, at 751 Eighth St. SE. where Café Kimchi used to be. Owned by Weon Kim, Torai serves mainly sushi, plus a few Korean dishes and Hawaiian poke bowls. The brightly spiffed up space is mainly carryout, with a small counter and tables for eating in. Torai also caters. Closed Monday; call 202-525-2053.
As always, La Plaza, 629 Pennsylvania Ave. SE, will be open on Christmas Day, Dec. 25 for lunch and dinner. Besides the usual Tex-Mex/Salvadoran menu, the kitchen will offer such holiday specials as deep-fried turkey. Call 202-546-9512.
Lincoln Park Newcomer
Just off Lincoln Park, Wine and Butter has opened on the corner formerly occupied by P&C. New proprietor Atilla Suzer has added a handsome marble and brass-trimmed counter/espresso bar and tables. He’s also expanded the wine and beer selection, adding more groceries including fresh bread and pastries, cheeses (including house-made pimento cheese), eggs, pastas, sauces, olive oil, sausages and even fresh fruit. Located at 1023 East Capitol SE (next to Surroundings), Wine and Butter is open daily. No phone number yet.
We were sad to hear that Liberty Tree, the New England-themed restaurant specializing in artisan beer and Casino pizza (clams, bacon and spinach), has served its last meal at 1016 H St. NE. Proprietor Scott Hamilton has considered moving popular menu items (hopefully that dynamite pizza!) to sister restaurant: Hamilton’s Bar & Grill, 233 Second St. NW.