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Tom Sietsema Finds Ambar Loud But Delicious

What the critics are saying this week


The Washington Post’s Tim Carman gives Herndon’s Balaji Cafe a whirl for his $20 diner feature. There he finds “several fermented beauties,” including the dosa.

The vegetarian fare from South India is made from nine different batters and doughs created in the kitchen daily, ranging from “quick, hand-kneaded” dough for paratha flatbreads and kneaded-and-fermented dough for fried bhatura bread.

He describes his first euphoric experience eating at Balaji Cafe:

“The first time I wrapped a butter-slathered length of gobi paratha around an Indian pickle, I felt this ecstatic rush of sun, earth and spirit, a sensation that the somehow surpassed worldly pleasure. I’m not kidding.”

The rice-and-lentil dosa “hits that sweet spot between crisp and chewy,” while one miss on the menu is the dahi vada: the lentil doughnuts “arrive drowning in yogurt, their texture and shape reduced to sheer sogginess.”

He calls the bhatura “light and chewy” and “plays the perfect foil to the channa masala, a chickpea curry that supplies the fire and earth to the bread’s air.” [WaPo]

Meanwhile, The Washington Post’s Tom Sietsema heads to Arlington’s Ambar and is a fan before his meal even starts (he’s happy to be offered his seat at the table before his party arrives).

The hospitality ensues further when the manager promptly meets his request to turn down the volume of the music.

The cuisine, influenced from Greece, Turkey, Austria and Hungary, kicks off with veal soup that “rivals Jewish penicillin.” He’s impressed by the spread of the table bread: warm pita comes with cow’s milk cheese mixed with ajvar.

The look of the restaurant is top-notch and “cosmopolitan”: blowups of vintage postcards and photographs from Belgrade, live plants hanging from the ceiling, and an open kitchen with ceramic white tiles and charcoal grill. That heat source adds smokiness to house-made sausages and “a lunchtime hit”: sliced grilled shrimp garnished with fried pancetta.

Sietsema also raves about the price point, with lunch deals that “amount to feasts.”

He got so full off of the “rib-sticking food” that the idea of dessert was hard to stomach, but he suggests going with “anything involving fruit and swaddled in phyllo.”

His one big gripe about Ambar was its ear plug-worthy noise level. [WaPo]

DC Modern Luxury’s Nevin Martell gives Hazel a visit, calling the new Shaw spot a “smash hit.” Executive chef Rob Rubba “is a master storyteller—with food.”

Take the Peking-style duck preparation, served family-style for two or more diners; it was Rubba’s “desire to learn how to cook the game bird that inspired him to attend culinary school.” The 38-seat restaurant is “complemented by a a sleek bar aglow with sepia lighting” and its large patio has already become “a see-and-be-seen space” in Shaw. As far as booze, there’s a “smart” wine list and craft-beer selection “thoughtfully categorized” by flavor profile.

Asian accents are everywhere, like in the gnocchi bowl that’s “dressed with punchy Korean kimchee ragu” and “Mexican-meets-Japanese summer corn served over rice with plenty of togarashi seasoning.”

Rubba’s playful side comes through in various dishes, says Martell, like the “breakfast-for-dinner in the shape of the housemade English muffins ... with lemon verbena Greek yogurt crowned with an orb of olive-oil jam so it resembles a sunny-side up egg.”

Steak tartare “is another edible amusement,” with “a cheery” yellow dollop of pasteurized egg yolk. Martell’s finale—which he calls a “must-order around town”—is the five-star foie gras mousse, topped with chamomile gelée and bee pollen. [Modern Luxury]

Bethesda Magazine’s David Hagedorn taste tests Suma and isn’t too impressed.

”Cubes of tuna tartare look wan and drab, rather than pink and bright, brimming in a cup fashioned from a sheet of fried crêpe-like feuille de brick. It’s so warm in the restaurant that I worry how the tuna was handled and fret about the raw quail yolk I’m mixing into it. The yolk doesn’t add anything to the flavor or texture; all I taste is sesame oil. That’s also the predominant note in Bonnie’s Wings, named after [chef Gene] Sohn’s mother. If you’re going to put wings on the menu, make them crunchy, succulent and packed with zing. Sohn doesn’t.”

Slow braising pan-seared pork spare ribs in veal stock for 24 hours for a barbecue entrée “turns them into pot roast rather than juicy, lightly smoky ribs,” Hagedorn thinks. As for the sides, he does give props to the “tangy, smoky” molasses baked beans but the corn on the cob is overcooked.

One of the few hits he counts on the menu is the buttery purée of chicken liver and duck foie gras, with warm grilled raisin-walnut pumpernickel bread: “a balance of sweet and savory, crunchy and smooth, richness and rusticity.”

He’s also a fan of the crab concoctions, including the dip and crab cake entree, which is light on fillers. And the blue crab soup, packed with corn, tomatoes, edamame and carrots, reminds him “of the hearty vegetable soup my Alabama stepmother freezes when summer’s bounty is at its peak, destined to be a blissful reward in winter’s throes.” [Bethesda Magazine]

FROM THE BLOGS: Rick Eats DC ranks some of D.C.’s best appetizers, while Been There Eaten That heads to Wildwood Kitchen for brunch.

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