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Ambar's First Year of Balkan Sips and Apps

Photos: R. Lopez

Since Ambar opened in Capitol Hill a year ago, staff has been schooling guests in Balkan-inspired small plates, difficult-to-pronounce-but-easy-to-sip Eastern European wines, and thirty varieties of the fermented fruit beverage rakia (the largest selection on the East Coast.) National director of operations Ivan Iricanin shares his impressions of Ambar's first year.

Tell us a little about the inspiration for opening the restaurant. What do you know now that you wish you knew before you opened it?
The inspiration was to bring the cuisine of my home country to Washington, DC. I am very pleased with how everything has turned out and the learning experience it has become.

What has surprised you during your first year in business?
Being that Ambar was the first Balkan-inspired restaurant in Washington, we weren't sure what the response would be. But we were thrilled to see how many people already knew the Balkan region and how they, along with the Capitol Hill neighborhood, embraced our home-cooked Balkan dishes. It's been great watching people really enjoy what we consider Balkan comfort food.

Do first time guests have any impression of Balkan cuisine when they walk through the door?
For most people who walk through our door, they have not experienced Balkan food. However, because it's such an approachable cuisine, we're seeing a lot of returning guests who thoroughly enjoy the service and the traditional Balkan classics.

What do you hope that they learn by the time they leave?
That they like Balkan cuisine! But also that they leave with a positive, lasting impression of the food, the Rakia, the regional wine, and the passion and appreciation that the Ambar staff bring to their experience.

What have been the most popular dishes?
Our most popular dishes are the more traditional items like stuffed cabbage and famous mixed grilled meat platter. But forest gnocchi dessert, a dish with a more modern approach, has been popular.

What are guest impressions of the rakia? What are the most-ordered flavors?
Most of our guests from the Balkan region prefer drinking the plum rakia straight. For everyone else, it's mixed between selling rakia in cocktails and flights. The favorites are the quince, cherry, and honey. But with thirty different varieties and the largest selection on the East Coast, we suggest you come and find your favorite.

What are the most approachable Balkan wines on the menu?
Most people aren't familiar with wines of the Balkan region, so we designed a glossary with eleven descriptions (with over forty-five wines available) of each variety so our guests would better understand the flavors and tasting notes of each wine. So, for example, if a diner enjoyed a pinot noir, they would be inclined to try a plavac mali after reading the comparable flavors in the description.

What new dishes, drinks or promotions do you have planned in the coming months?
The bottomless made-to-order brunch on the weekends has been a huge hit. And, because of its success, we have applied the concept to dinner with our "Bottomless Balkan dinner," available every single day. For $49, guests get unlimited small plates, and for $59, it also includes a free flowing beverage menu of select wine, beer and cocktails.

How did you celebrate your first anniversary?
This year we celebrated our anniversary on Monday, the 13th on same day as orthodox New Year's Eve, by hosting a New Year's Eve party.
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523 8th Street SE, Washington, DC 20003