Ambar (Arlington, VA)

One of the nicer things about traveling is that it occasionally offers up an opportunity to try a cuisine that’s mostly unfamiliar to me. A business trip to DARPA headquarters in Arlington, VA gave me an opportunity to meet up with friends and try out some… Balkan cuisine. Clarendon is the third location of Ambar. Along with their other two location (one across the river in DC, the other back in Belgrade, Serbia, talk about an unusual chain distribution!).

Walking in, it was obviously that Ambar is the hot new place in Clarendon (which is getting to the point where I barely recognize anything around Clarendon other than the long-existing Nam Viet, especially since the area is renowned for its high turnover rate for restauarants), and from the clientele, it’s obvious that it’s one of the spots for informal dates and group gatherings, since almost the entire restaurant was either tables of 2, or 10 or more (ours the latter). One of the reasons is the menu; like Turkish cuisine, Balkan cuisine does a lot of mezze: small plates served up family-style to the table, with a good selection of meat, vegetable, and side plates (much like the Tapas served down the street at La Tasca). The other attraction is the price; while you nominally can order things a la carte, the staff highly encourages you to do the $35 “Balkan Experience” which is basically all-you-can-eat small mezze plates (the large plates as well, if you do $45 instead). It’s actually a pretty good deal, since you’d hit that cost point after about the third plate anyways. In any case, we couldn’t refuse this offer, so we sat back with our drinks and waited for the first plates to arrive.

I should mention my beverage, since it was a nice variation on a theme. These days every third restaurant seems to be selling variations on the Moscow Mule in a copper mug, but I actually enjoyed my “Belgrade Mule”, ginger beer, lime, and plum rakia. This combination worked well, and since I actually have two bottles of it at home, it might make for a nice change up.

The food started to arrive quickly; the first few course being charcuterie plates. The first had a nice selection of lamb and beef prosciutto, smoked pork neck, and salami, all of which we thought were quite good, especially the lamb proscuitto. The second was “spreads and breads”, with beet tzatziki, aged cow cheese, and roasted eggplant served up with some nice house bread. The highlights here were the surprisingly pleasant beet tzatziki and the bread rolls.

Next, they offered up a white veal soup, and surprisingly, only two of us at the table got it. A shame, since this was a really delicious veal soup loaded up with root vegetables and topped with a dollop of creme fraise. Not exactly sure what they spiced this with, but it was a very, very robust broth; I’d love to go get this again on a cold winter day.

Next up was a pair of nearly identical dishes: Balkan beef and lamb kebab, and Balkan beef and lamb patties. Both of these were, as far as we could tell, basically two subtly different presentations of exactly the same meat blend, one in skewer form (served up de-skewered) and one in patty form. While not the most attractive entree, these were actually really good: the spicing mix worked well with the lamb and beef mixture, making for a nicely charred, still juicy, and very flavorful bit of meat. I’d get this again, although I was also eying the awesome looking tartare served to the next table over. Oh, next time I guess.

Next up was the last of the “appetizer” style mezze: a pepper and cheese croquette. This was basically a Balkan-style jalapeno popper: a more Turkish-style pepper, a slightly firmer cheese, and an olive jam served up along-side it, this was a pleasant departure from the many grilled meats presented.

Finally, a few of the larger dishes came out, the second-to-last being a mushroom pilaf. Normally I’m not much of a fan of a pilav (since most are usually fairly boring rice with a few veggie bits), but this was a well-executed pilav: rice cooked to the point of still being slightly tender, a bunch of diced root veggies, and many large chunks of cremini mushroom, with more than a little cheese added to firm it up. This was a rather nice dish.

Closing it out was a “grilled shrimp over corn puree”, that I’d basically call “Balkan Shrimp and Grits”. The spicing was distinctly more Eastern European than “Cajun”, but otherwise, that’s basically what this dish was: perfectly spiced and grilled shrimp served over a reasonably good bed of cheesy grits. I’d get this again.

There were a few other dishes passed around, but by this point we were waving the white flag. Overall, this was an outstandingly good and generous meal for $35/head (plus alcohol). There’s a lot of variety, and quite a few other menu items I’d love to explore on a future visit. I hope to return soon.

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