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Ambar, Balkan Cuisine on Barracks Row in the Former Jordan's 8 Space at 8th and E Streets SE - Also Open in Clarendon

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I was just thinking "Hey, maybe I'll go on a date here this weekend" and then I found there are no hours posted anywhere I can find on the website.

Sigh.

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I was just thinking "Hey, maybe I'll go on a date here this weekend" and then I found there are no hours posted anywhere I can find on the website.

Sigh.

Their Open Table entry reads: Hours of Operation: Dinner: Nightly: 5:00pm - 11:00pm

I don't care for the website (aside from not having basic information such as hours of operation). The crumpled paper background makes things hard to read.

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I couldn't find the address on the website. Not that it matters since if it isn't open for lunch, it doesn't exist for me these days.

Wow. That's really bad. It's 523 8th Street, SE, in the old Jordan's 8 location.

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We actually ate here just last night. The place was full and the style and decor are trendy but still warm. Our server could not have been nicer. The wine list is interesting: quite a few Balkan wine varieties I had never tried before (tiny bit pricey but where isn't these days?). The food, however, was a disappointment. I've never been to that region of the world so I am certainly not qualified to say that its "not authentic" but after reading the recent profile in the Post I think it's safe to say this is highly watered down, Americanized version of whatever it once was. In the end, it reminded me of Agora, but not as good. We likely erred in our ordering by not paying close enough attention to the menu, but we ended up with 4 out of our 6 dishes being either fried or breaded. The bacon wrapped dates were good, but similar to many other places. The cheese pie was also pretty good, gooey and cheesy. It went downhill from there: leek croquettes were bland, Parmesan crusted chicken was dry and also bland, panko crusted pepper tasted like TGIFriday's jalapeno poppers. We ended with the sour cabbage stuffed with ground beef, which seemed to us to perhaps be on the more authentic end of this.. and quite good. The pacing between courses was so slow that we were too stuffed to eat much (I know this means we over ordered, but nonetheless if the food came a more consistent pace we would have enjoyed more of it.) I may go back and steer toward the meat and seafood courses and stay away from the clearly "trying to appeal to the usual CAVA crowd" items. I have seen some criticism that portions are small. We did not find this to be so. We over ordered with 6 dishes. Easily could have stopped after 3-4 and gotten out of there for around $80 with two drinks each. As a neighbor, I hope the food improves otherwise I fear it will end up being more of a drinking spot, than an eating spot.

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I saw Carmen's review and I am intrigued, having spent some quality time in the former Yugoslavia during the recent (ok -- 20 years ago) unpleasantness. I grew to love the food mostly, although on my first trip to Sarajevo we had one of the most dreadful pizzas evah. Pizza is not an authentic part of Balkan cuisine so this may be discounted. Basically, think of grilled meats and a heavy reliance on peppers. Schopska salads are necessary to prevent digestive discomfort ;) . Most of my time though was immediately post-conflict, so the availability of fine dining opportunities was constrained by the general economic conditions. Driving around the country side we found local dining gems despite the grimness of the overall situation. Lesson: keeping the gastronomic identity alive was a survival method. Some of the most beautiful coastline anywhere in Europe is a feature of this region so anyone thinking about some culinary travel should consider this part of the world.

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Some of the most beautiful coastline anywhere in Europe is a feature of this region so anyone thinking about some culinary travel should consider this part of the world.

One of my neighbors is an immigrant from Croatia. She worked/lived at the Yugoslavian Embassy for many years and now lends a hand at the Croatian Embassy when they really need her. She is forever gifting me with stuff from there, including a California wine made by a Croatian immigrant. It was one of the best Chardonnays I have ever had the privilege to sip--unfortunately a little too expensive to drink on a daily basis. I'm just hoping it was a gift that she passed on to me.

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We had dinner at Ambar last night. A thoroughly OK meal, but not worth any accolades greater than OK, in my opinion. I should caveat my feelings by the following: my wife has spent a significant part of her life in the Balkans (peace corps for two years in Bulgaria.) We're headed to the Balkans (again, in my wife's case) this summer for a few years and have had the opportunity to try the local cuisine on a number of occasions. All that to say we know our way around byrek.

We had five dishes: shopska salad, cheese pie, the grilled asparagus, the kebab plate, and the veal stew. Of these I would order the stew and the cheese pie again. The cheese pie was not overly salty and the cucumber sauce was very thick and full of flavor. The veal stew was equally flavorful, served in a very rich sauce which the menu said was made with kajmak -- and maybe it was, but we could only taste the stock.

The shopska salad was average, and would probably be better in the summer. The kebab plate was also very mediocre: the accompanying fried potato wedges tasted like they were Oreida and the kebabs themselves tasted like breakfast sausage. The grilled peppers were a nice touch but overall it was Applebees level cuisine.

Our biggest disappointment was the grilled asparagus. An utter ripoff. Three stalks of asparagus with the aforementioned cucumber sauce, two bits of fried prosciutto, and a couple small chunks of purple potato. For $7!!

Service was prompt and well paced. Our server gave us an opening schtick about how the food was from "the 11 countries of the Balkans, tapas style," and when pressed admitted that the "11 countries" did not include Kosovo (a personal pet peeve.) The runners need a bit of training, as they were a bit too enthusiastic to clear plates and wipe down tables while not doing the latter very well.

Overall: ok food. Not Balkan in my estimation, at all. Basically a less-good Cava or Cafe 8, with drinks made of raki.

(less edited and more re-written! What was I thinking last night?)

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I met a group of folks there this past Friday for drinks, and we ended up getting a table and staying for dinner. A couple of thoughts on what was, for us, a wonderfully enjoyable evening out.

  • Agree with thoughts above, their website is a disaster.
  • I have zero experience with Balkan food or wine, so please take that into account.
  • We were a group of six people and we ordered excessively and haphazardly, so my recollection of exactly what we had may not be 100% accurate.
  • Service, both at the bar and in the restaurant itself was fantastic throughout. And we were asking a lot of questions, particularly at the bar, as there are many wines on their list that I have never heard of before.
  • The have a happy hour until 7 pm that includes mediocre drink deals (Natty Bo for $4, overly sweet cocktails for $5), and pretty good food deals, such as the kabobs or the leek croquettes for $4.
  • Best dishes of the night were the grilled calamari, the roasted squash salad, the wild mushroom salad, the cheese pie and the grilled duck.
  • Nothing we had was bad, but the dishes I would not order again were the venison carpaccio (just not enough flavor) and the white veal soup (the same, although a squeeze of lemon improved it dramatically).
  • We found the wines enjoyable. I won't say that I loved any of them enough to actively seek them out, but some of them were extremely interesting.

So, we really liked it. The food was good, the service was outstanding, and I'd be happy to go back.

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Lunch today at Ambar. Bob went for the lunch trio ($14) of squash soup, wild mushroom salad, and the zucchini sandwich. The soup was decent, though more warm than hot, perhaps a slightly floury texture but nothing off-putting. The zucchini patty in the sandwich (a ciabatta roll, I think) was more like a pancake or omelet; I expected something firmer, denser. Not bad (though not especially flavorable), and decent sized, just different from what I imagined. The shoestring potatoes on the side didn't add much. I opted for the squash salad and the Balkan kebab. First, I should note that when ordering a la carte, the soup and salad portions are significantly larger than when ordering the prix fixe trios. The server accidentally brought me a bowl of the squash soup, and it was at least half again as large as Bob's portion. She quickly replaced it with the correct salad, which came in a very heavy stoneware bowl. A large serving, though probably not enough to stand as a meal on its own for most people, it was tasty, but overdressed. The kebab, as Kanishka notes, was in fact a bit like breakfast sausage and the four measly potato wedges--not bad, mind you, but not very distinguished. The dish was also quite oily (they seem to have a heavy hand with the oil here, which was also a flaw on the mushroom salad). Despite those caveats, however, this was a substantial lunch for the money, and with a bit more precision and care from the kitchen and staff, it could be a different and enjoyable option on Barracks Row, at least for lunch.

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Dinner there last night. I'm half Croatian, but know next to nothing about the cuisine other than a few things my grandmother used to make. The comments above are right that the Balkan Kabobs were sorta like your average breakfast sausages. The Veal Schnitzel was a bit different than what you'd expect. It was a pounded veal cutlet, but then rolled into a long tube and fried. Rolling it up into a thick tube like that made the bites of veal fairly tough, plus the breading did not stay on very well... not a successful idea. Tried a few other things, but the Mushroom Crepes and the bread basket with spreads were probably the two best savory plates we had. The most interesting dish, though, was the Forest Gnocchi dessert. Now that foams and gels and all that seem to have been abandoned, the current modernist fad seems to be making things look like a nature scene (copied from the restaurant Noma in Denmark?). This was pretty tasty, though I'm not sure the flavors of some of the listed ingredients, such as black tea, came through. It's only $6-- order it. Interesting Balkan-focused wine list and the mezcal/pear/rakia cocktail was nice.

The $4 happy hour menu looks like the best way to sample Ambar if you're curious. The bars were packed (downstairs, upstairs, and an outside patio one).

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Went to Ambar last night with 3 friends and we split 9 dishes with varying levels of success (although overall we came away pleased with the dinner). The server first recommended 3-4 dishes per person, but we each chose 2 to share (plus the bread basket) and I can't speak for the others, but I was quite full when I left. It certainly would depend on what you order (for instance the asparagus was a much smaller amount of food than the veal schnitzel), but I would err to the side of fewer dishes to start and then order more later if you want more.

In order from my most to least favorite (in general we tended to like the veggies and starters more than the meats we tried):

  • Bread Basket ($6) - Cornbread and fried sourdough with 3 spreads (roasted peppers, cheese spread, and peppers and cheese). Different than a traditional bread basket, I thought the breads were good (preferred the sourdough) but really liked all the spreads and used them on some of the other dishes as well.
  • Cheese Pie ($6) - Sort of like a Greek tiropita with a cucumber and yogurt sauce. The cucumber and yogurt cut the richness of the phyllo and cheese well. Nicely crispy and balanced.
  • Roasted Mushroom Crepes ($8) - Three good-sized bundles of crepe stuffed with mushrooms and cream/cheese. Rich and earthy.
  • Balkan Salad ($7) - Tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and onion with a vinegary sauce and aged cheese on top. Fresh and crunchy and a good contrast to some of the richer dishes we ordered, but I couldn't help feeling like this would be easy to replicate at home.
  • Grilled Asparagus ($7) - We definitely had a larger serving than what Kanishka complained about above (at least 8-10 asparagus stalks), but it isn't a huge serving. We all really liked the sauce on this though.
  • Veal Schnitzel ($15) - By far the biggest serving size of the night (to match the price), this could serve as a full entree with a big pile of mashed potatoes, a big log of schnitzel, and a generous amount of cucumber tartar sauce. I agree with cjsadler that the execution on the veal is a little odd, but flavor-wise I thought the dish was good.
  • Balkan Kebab ($10) - Also referenced above, the kebabs look like breakfast sausages, and don't taste too different. The flavor on the potato wedges was really good though.
  • Spinach Risotto ($11) - This one was ok, topped with baked shrimp, but was a little boring.
  • Venison Carpaccio ($8) - caveat on this one is that I can't eat raw meat right now so I didn't try it

Our waiter was very nice and friendly if a bit scattered at times. We all liked the space too. It's loud, but has a good look. I probably won't rush back, but would like to return with my +1 and give it another shot.

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They still have the $4 happy hour, which is a good deal. I ascertained that it ended at 7 PM but forgot to ask when it started. Their website is still unsatisfactory.

For $17.60 before tip, I got a can of Tecate, a Balkan Salad, Grilled Bacon-Wrapped Prunes (3), and Leek Croquettes (3). It was a really good deal. I have no idea why their happy hour beers are Tecate and Dos Equis. The wines are a house red and white. I recall getting a good Balkan white wine here in the past on the advice of the upstairs bartender, but I'm going to guess these wines are on the level of Tex-Mex beers (which I like, mind you!)

I was seriously craving fresh vegetables, and the salad was perfect for that. It was a medium portion, not too small and not too big--very good deal for $4. I was disappointed by the prunes. I looked forward to them most of what I ordered. Best point: the almond was in place of the original pit. That was cool. I crunched right through each one. But the preparation overcooked or oversmoked them. They didn't taste quite burned but overcooked. I loved the almond in the middle concept, though.

What I loved: the leek croquettes. They were deep-fried, with a panko coating and a red pepper spread and bechamel in the middle. So gushy wonderful to bite into :ph34r: . They stayed red hot for a long time too. I kept burning myself trying to eat them.

Previously I recall being surprised by loving the stuffed cabbage and not loving the cheese pie (too long ago for specifics), so this really leaves me as a place full of surprises.

I'd recommend this $4 happy hour to Hill staffers and interns, but I think they've already found it as I was carded at the bar. If I was asked for ID, they're carding everyone coming for this.

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Has anyone been more recently? Since they're coming to Clarendon in the Boulevard Woodgrill space, I'm going to try them.

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I was there in early March. Can't give many specifics, but I really enjoyed my meal. I'm a Balkan food novice. Five of us did the Balkan Experience, $49 for unlimited small plates and drinks. We ordered an insane amount of food, which was easy to do because our server was very available and accommodating. I remember some things were so-so, some things were delicious, and nothing was bad. One in my party was from Serbia, and he approved.

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Saw this on Facebook.  Great deal for all you can eat:

Send us a message via the contact form on our website to get a Balkan Experience for the promotional price of $25! For those of you who don't know, the Balkan Experience means UNLIMITED food for only $25.

This offer is valid until Sunday, October 16th.

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This place lives up to all its hype.  The five of us went to the Clarendon location last night.  I tried to book a few weeks prior but nothing was available on OpenTable.  So I called and was able to make a reservation that way.  When you first enter, the din is incredible.  It is extremely LOUD!!!  The 5th person was a little late, but the hostess seated us without making us wait for the 5th person.  We all opted for the $35 Balkan Experience--you can't have some people order the all-you-can-eat and others order a la carte.  Food was great and different! I highly recommend the stuffed cabbage, stuffed pepper, meat pie, grilled shrimp, mussels, fried zucchini, French fries.  The bread assortment included fried whole wheat dough (sort of like savory zeppolis). Wine was good too.  Everybody ordered 3 things right away and they spaced the food out nicely.  After eating all that, we ordered one thing at a time. Service was friendly and efficient...also accommodating.  One guy wanted to taste a sample of the wine before ordering a bottle and they brought him out a half-glass.  A fantastic asset to Clarendon.  My only complaint is the NOISE!!! We were seated at a round table and you could only converse with the people on either side of you...and even then you needed to shout.

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Tried Ambar for the first time a week ago at the Clarendon location. I thought it was solid, but honestly I was expecting a bit more.

We opted for the $35 Balkan Experience, and got I believe 9 dishes. For two people, this was a solid amount of food, but we weren't stuffed. Some of the dishes are fairly small (the meat skewers, asparagus), while others are larger (mushroom pilav, fried zucchini).

Of those we had, the smoked pork neck mezze and the cheese pie were the standouts. The first comes thinly sliced and cured on a plate with a couple good cheeses (one cow's milk and one mild feta), some dried fruits, and (if I remember correctly) a red pepper spread. The cheese pie was a decently puffy pastry that was also delicious.

The grilled shrimp were good, although the corn puree they came with was a bit too sweet for my taste. We enjoyed a good asparagus dish that came with two poached quail eggs and some crumbled crisped prosciutto. And I thought the stuffed sour cabbage and lamb skewer were both solid.

The remaining dishes were more forgettable - mushroom kajmak, mushroom pilav, and fried zucchini were all fine, but not sure I'd order any again. The fried sourdough that came with the mushroom kajmak sounded interesting, but I thought came out too heavy in practice (not that fried sourdough sounds particularly light).

Overall, this was a perfectly good meal, but with that coming out to $90 tax and tip included for two people (without any drinks) I didn't feel as if it was worth it given what else we have in the area. On the meat side of things, I like the kabobs at Ravi Kabob much more, and overall I find Rus Uz to be much more interesting flavor wise (not to overly generalize - neither of those is completely the same type of food, but I would go to each before Ambar, especially at half the cost for 2 people). And frankly - at $90 for 2 without drinks, this bumps Ambar into a category of excellent places more broadly that it doesn't come close to approaching (can certainly do Red Hen, Rasika, probably Rose's on roughly those parameters).

That's not to disparage them - the place is perfectly fine and people are certainly willing to pay that in Clarendon (it was packed the whole time we were there on a Friday night). You're not going to have a bad meal here. Just didn't think it compared favorably or was more interesting than other options I can do for the price.

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2 hours ago, arldiner said:

Tried Ambar for the first time a week ago at the Clarendon location. I thought it was solid, but honestly I was expecting a bit more.

We opted for the $35 Balkan Experience, and got I believe 9 dishes. For two people, this was a solid amount of food, but we weren't stuffed. Some of the dishes are fairly small (the meat skewers, asparagus), while others are larger (mushroom pilav, fried zucchini).

arldiner,

Yours is a fine post, and one which I "Liked." But my very first impression is that you had 9 courses for $35, which works out to about $3.89 per course - in terms of food cost, the restaurant probably paid about $1 for each of the courses you had, on average.

Now, that doesn't sound like much; yet, you did spend $90 for two people, so it *does* add up. There are clearly two ways of looking at this - the "price per course" vs. the "total cost," and I'm not sure which is correct, although I tend to weight your overall experience as "slightly negative," and given that your post was thoughtful and well-written, that means a lot. 

Nothing more to say except "thank you" for your feedback - it's important, and a very good example of a restaurant being seemingly inexpensive, but not necessarily so.

Given *my* post, do you have anything more to add? Am I on the right track by being a bit torn as to what to think? This could actually be the seed of an interesting and detailed conversation.

Cheers,
Rocks

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13 hours ago, arldiner said:

That's not to disparage them - the place is perfectly fine and people are certainly willing to pay that in Clarendon (it was packed the whole time we were there on a Friday night). You're not going to have a bad meal here. Just didn't think it compared favorably or was more interesting than other options I can do for the price.

I agree.  I think its a terrific place, the most enjoyable restaurant I visit, and that there are better meals elsewhere, (better meals at that price and less) but I'll keep returning.

Also, Don, they had 9 small plates for 2; $70, just under $8/plate.  It would take a person with a gigantic appetite to down 9 plates on his/her own. :rolleyes:

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